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Old Believers' prayer houses are an indispensable part of Latvia's cultural environment, especially in the eastern part of the country. Although the Old Believers community has participated in the shaping of the region's specific cultural and social environment for more than three hundred years, its sacred architecture in Eastern Latvia has been little examined so far and attention has mainly been paid to the sacred items found in their prayer houses - icons and books. In the world-wide cultural context, Old Believers are known as preservers of the unique ancient culture of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their origins date back to the mid-17th century reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon which resulted in the schism between the ruling Russian Orthodox Church and dissident Old Believers. Opponents of these revisions endured wide-scale punitive actions and persecutions. The first organized groups of Old Believers appeared in eastern Latvia soon after the church reform began; they had come mostly from Novgorod, Pskov and other territories west of Moscow. From eastern Latvia Old Believers gradually reached other parts of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Eleven towns in Latvia became noted centres of Old Believer culture and religion, featuring the most significant communities of Old Believers in eastern Latvia. Each of these towns has one prayer house, except Daugavpils which has six Old Believers' prayer houses. The prayer house has always been and still is the centre of every community of Old Believers. It performs not just sacred but also secular functions. The premises are used for active educational work and gatherings and conferences of the Old Believers community. The Old Believers of eastern Latvia belong to the so-called Bezpopovtsy ('priestless') branch without clergy and liturgy in their services. The lack of an altar emerges as the most distinctive element of Old Believers sacred architecture.
Changes in confessional structure and influences should be taken into account by scholars dealing with culture and art. This heritage, in its turn, is an important reflection of the processes going on in cultural history, the actually tangible and analysable entity of phenomena in architecture and art both in particular regions and in Latvia in general. Largely because of this we can speak of regional specificity in Latvia's artistic culture that is rooted in history but retains its significance till our days. These differences stand out quite clearly in various regions of Latvia. The origins of peculiar traits are complicate enough to be reduced to confessions of religion. Still this aspect coincides with the culture researcher Andrejs Johansons' thesis on the process of acculturalisation and the role of church in the regional life in Latvia. It has influenced the ideas of the variation: the familiar and the alien (different) in cross-regional assessment. These differences in Latvia have been historically conditioned by two processes - Reformation and recatholisation. They had not passed by Eastern Latvia as well (meaning the present territory of Latgale and partly Augszeme). The 16th century Reformation involved the entire territory of Latvia, but recatholisation was most successful in this particular part of Latvia. The 17th-18th century artistic heritage reflects and largely typifies precisely this difference of sacred culture, creating a sort of paradigm already then: tradition in the choice of church building prototypes (specific spatial solutions), typical furnishing of premises (involving the masters of fine and applied arts), and a certain tradition in selection of artistic impulses.
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