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Kings, Grand Dukes, Town Councils and Tsars 2: Vilnius

LITHUANIA | Sunday, 5 June 2022 | Views [170]

St. Anne's and St. Bernard - Francis of Asissi Churches

St. Anne's and St. Bernard - Francis of Asissi Churches

Kings, Grand Dukes, Town Councils and Tsars: A Brief Excursion to Historical Northeastern Europe 2


The hill behind Cathedral Square with castle ruins and an old (reconstructed) tower is named after King Geminidas. During his family’s dynasty there were three castles in the vicinity, the Upper Castle, with the current ruins and tower, the lower, which was destroyed by Muscovite Russian invaders in the 18th C, and which has now been rebuilt as the Palace housing the National Museum, and a crooked palace that was supposed to have been built at an odd angle to adjust for energy lines in the earth. There are no records of where the Crooked Palace actually stood as it was destroyed fairly early on, probably by the 15th C. 

Lithuania was the last of the European nations to convert from indigenous religions to Christianity, but when it did, it did so in a big way.  While I was there, there were services going on almost non-stop in just about every one of the many churches I visited. Catholicism is deeply engrained in the history of the country and especially in the center of Vilnius. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladilaus was constantly in use, so it was difficult to take interior photos even though I kept going back to do so. The catacombs were closed, which meant I wasn’t able to see the 14th C fresco of the Crucifixion. The original Cathedral was probably built during the 14th C, but the various structures on the site were repeatedly burned down or destroyed by enemy troops.  The current reconstruction is from 1801. The Cathedral is the final resting place for a number of Lithuanian rulers and their wives, and houses a large Baroque chapel dedicated to St. Casimir, the country’s patron saint, who was the heir of the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.  Pilgrims flock to the Cathedral not just to visit the St. Casimir Chapel, but also to see the miracle working 1750 painting “Madonna of the Sapiega” in the Gostutas Chapel.

The Old Town has a number of other Catholic Churches from various denominations: Franciscan, Dominican, etc. The most striking Franciscan Church is in the middle of the 15th C St. Bernadine Monastery; it is considered to be the largest Gothic brick building. The fresco of the Crucifixion in this church is visible to all who enter.  Immediately next door and in front of the entrance to the Franciscan Church is St. Anne’s, which is a magnificent example of flamboyant Gothic architecture. According to the brochure, at least 33 different kinds of bricks were used on the façade to create its unique ornamentation.

Perhaps one of the most famous chapels in Vilnius, however, is actually part of the old walls around the Old Town, the Gates of Dawn. The original gates were given to the Carmelites in the 16th C and they created the Mother of God Chapel above the archway on the street. The nuns placed a 17th C miracle working painting to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Chapel. According to the information at the site “hundreds of people still make their vows here. It is one of the most important historical, cultural and religious monuments in Vilnius.”  Photography is unfortunately not allowed.

The Old Town has a number of other Catholic pilgrimage sites, including the Shrine of Divine Mercy, the Church of the Holy Spirit, in addition to Orthodox Churches, including St. Nicholas and the Holy Mother of God Church. Additionally, in town there is a Ukrainian Greek Eastern-Rite Catholic Church, which commemorates the first Lithuanian Christian martyrs: Anthony, John and Eustathius.  The Hill of Three Crosses, opposite the Upper Castle, “commemorates seven Franciscan martyrs of Vilnius, who were executed during the reign of Grand Duke Algirdas.” Algirdas reverted back to the old ways after coming to power. It took another century before the country went back to Christianity. A pilgrim’s tour dedicated to Pope St. John Paul II, who visited to the city in September 1993, includes sacred places from the 14th C in Lithuania, not just those in Vilnius. The Cavalry Way of the Cross, however, covers 7km in the center of the Old Town. According to the brochure: “The Calvary of Vilnius is divided into two parts and reproduces the topography and orientation of Jerusalem so that worshipers, who were unable to visit the Holy Land, could repeat the last trip of Jesus. The take up path from the Last Supper Room to the Quarterly Old Town Gate consists of 20 stations marked by eight chapels, a bridge along the Cedron stream, one brick and seven wooden gates and the Way from Pilot Town Hall to Golgotha Hill – and 15 stations marked by 12 masonry chapels and three stations equipped in a church.  It is also possible to go by the Mary’s path, which consists of 12 stations and goes in the opposite direction of the road of Christ’s suffering.  The Calvary Way of the Cross is included in the way of John Paul II in the Archdiocese of Vilnius.”

Clearly, religion played a key role in the history of the country and still does.  This comes to light in the National Museum. As an fyi, witches were persecuted in Vilnius, as they were elsewhere. To be considered a witch, one only needed to use herbs, not go to church, or simply not kowtow to authority.


The Lower Castle, the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, was restored in 2013 and is now home to the National Museum, which provides detailed descriptions of the country’s rulers and history.  The garden, a restored renaissance version of the one originally created in the 16th C by Bona Sforza, the Italian born Queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania.  Her son, Sigismund II Augustus, may have declared his love to his future wife, Barbara Radziwitt in the garden much to his mother’s dismay. She didn’t think Barbara’s aristocratic background was royal enough for her son. He married her anyway and by all accounts – at least those in Vilnius’ public buildings – the marriage was a good one. During his reign he developed a sizable collection of fine paintings and tapestries. The museum is definitely worth visiting as it provides a wealth of information that helps put the architecture found in the Old Town into perspective. It also provides insights into the continuing battles with Moscovy.

Education was and is important and Vilnius University was founded in 1579. Currently, the Old Town section of the University houses the History and Linguistics departments.  The buildings in the Old Town section are from various eras and include Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classicist architecture. There are 12 inner courtyards and a library founded in 1570 that has a large rare manuscript collection. Tickets are on sale at the entrance for architectural tours of the facilities.

The Old Town is a largely pedestrian zone and there are lots of quaint shops, coffee houses and restaurants. There is even a section of a street that is dedicated to literature.  A famous 19th C Lithuanian and Polish poet, Adam Michiewicz, lived on the street when it housed a number of bookstores and printing houses. Today there are over 200 small tiles dedicated to Lithuanian and foreign authors, including songwriters. Just outside the Old Town walls are the main bus station and farmer’s market.

I found Old Town Vilnius fascinating and the short walk over a small bridge to the separate “self-proclaimed independent republic of Uzupis” delightful.  Uzupis’ constitution declares “Everyone has the right to love” and this artists’ community shares this sentiment with all who visit.  There is even a love lock bridge connecting Old Town Vilnius with Uzupis.


From Vilnius I took a bus to Trakai, which is about 45 minutes outside of the city. Trakai’s highlight is a medieval castle in the middle of Lake Galve and is a popular recreation area for locals and foreigners alike.  The Island Castle, complete with now dry moat, was the summer residence of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Construction probably started at the end of the 14th C, but the castle wasn’t used until the early 15th C by Grand Duke Vytautas. The castle played a role in the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, but thereafter supposedly lost its defensive significance. The castle is open for visitors and there are exhibition halls in the courtyard buildings as well as the main castle. Back across the bridge that connects the island to the mainland, is a small village that is still home to the descendants of the 383 Karaim families brought by Vytautas (called the Great) from Crimea 600 years ago.  Their houses have their own unique style of architecture.  There is also a Sacral Art Museum at the end of Karaim St. in the old Peninsular Castle, which was probably built slightly before the Island Castle.

As there has to be an important church near a castle, the Basilica of the Visitation of Blessed Virgin Mary is just around the long corner from the Peninsula Castle ruins.  It is one of eight basilicas in the country and is most famous for the painting of Mother Protectrix, Mother Mary as the Patron Saint of Lithuania, on the high altar. Grand Duke Vytautas probably commissioned the construction of this Gothic church as well as his castles.

The excursion to Trakai was delightful. The weather was good, and it was fun to see the people boating on the lake and having picnics on the shore. It was also interesting to note that in every room throughout the castle’s exhibits as well as on the castle walls themselves hung the Ukrainian flag.  Support for Ukraine and fear of Russia were palpable throughout my time in Vilnius as it had been in Krakau.  I found the same to be true in the next city, Tallinn, even though the overt support was subdued.


Tags: churches, cities, history, medieval towns, museums


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