Christianity in Vilnius at the Gate of Dawn

“Hello, Jesus, Jesus?”

What Jesus? I looked at my travel companion, a confused face stared back at me.

We walked closer to the stall, she didn’t know where we were from, she knew that we were not from Vilnius, and that was all she cared as she displayed her wears of souverniors for pious tourists. A veritable collection of Jesus and Mary paraphernalia. We had arrived at the Gates of Dawn, the city gate to the old city. Staring at us from a height was a triumph if faded painting of Jesus.

The gate itself did not look particularly impressive, it felt like a half-hearted attempt at scaling the walls would have allowed the enemy into the city. Well, by the time the enemy got that close, there was perhaps little point in fighting. This was no impenetrable fortress, unlike Oslo’s Akerhus Fortress that’s for sure. I reckon there must have been some other fortifications in front of the city walls to protect the city.

Then again the technology available when the building was constructed was more primitive. It was built between 1503 and 1522 as part of defensive fortifications for Vilnius as part of a collection 10 city gates of which only the Gate of Dawn. We continued our walk into the city, a small crowd had assembled facing our direction.

Then from the crowd emerged a group of young men, clean shaven heads neatly and short. They were all in suits and they stopped just before us.

We stopped and looked at them, mesmerised as they crossed themselves and looked up at at the gate, their eyes filled with humility as they began to move their lips under their breath. Our eyes followed theirs and we turned to look up at the Gate we had just walked through, a small crowd was on the upper gate looking down at us, but behind the bodies of humanity was a picture in gold, a Madonna.

This was the Madonna (Our Lady) of the Gate of Dawn, a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The painting was once hung above the city gates with a collection of holy artifacts to ward off attacks from raiders and enemies and bless travellers. Because of the influence of the Orthodox Christianity, the painting was then covered in a suit of Gold and Silver with only the face and hands of Mary exposed. That itself was not enough to make the icon a miraculous image of veneration.

Chapel of the Gates of Dawn and the Madonna (Source)

The stories of power came soon though. In 1702 when Sweden captured Vilnius when the former went to war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The local populace attempted a fightback. According to local legend on the night of the pushback, The Lady of the Gates of Dawn came to the aid of her people and caused the metal gates of the city to crush four Swedish soldiers allowing the Polish-Lithuanian army to successfully counter attack against the Swedish at the city gates.

That was one miracle but it was not the first, nor the last. In fact a monk Hilarion published a book in 1761 detailing all the miracles attributed to the Madonna with the first dating back to 1671. All the stories showed the maternal protection of the Madonna, from saving lives of children, to protecting the inhabutants against enemies of war, to putting out raging fires.

The Gate of Dawn is presently a vital religious, historical and cultural monument in the city. But when it was first created the gate was nothing more than a defensive structure. The Madonna and the picture of Christ the Saviour (Salvator Mundi) were painted as decorations and nothing more. It was the tales of miracles that imbued the Gates with their symbolism today. It was also the sheer religous power of the Madonna and the Gate that prevented its destruction in the 1800s when the Russians government ordered the demolition of the other 9 gates.

The Gates of Dawn lead down an entrance to the city, but perhaps, one of the most religious entrances to the city. Churches exist on every corner of the city. Attached to the Madonna is a Catholic Church to St Teresa run by a religious order, the Discaled Carmelites who built a church to administer to the many who were putting up offerings to the Madonna. It is today still linked to the Gate.

Church of St Teresa at the Gates of Dawn

Catholicism in Lithuania became a majority religion in 1387 at the point of a sword.

Early leaders of Lithuania, ing Mindagaus and later Grand Duke Gediminas were both very adapt in trying to prevent Christianity from becoming the dominant religion in the country and also negotiating to prevent the Christian lords from attacking the then-pagan country. Mindagaus converted to Christianity as a form of defence for the state and repudiated it later on after the conversion had served its purpose. His successors did not show much interest in the religion too. In fact remaining pagan was useful. The promise of conversion allowed them to extract much from the neighbouring countries and stave off attacks. The nation slowly became Orthodox Christian since the Slavic and Rus people moved in and brought their religion with them and to ensure their control of the populace successive Grand Dukes married Orthodox Christian families turning the leadership nominally Christian.

But the state was officially still pagan, and that presented a problem. The Teutonic Knights after years of losses to Lithuania had managed to convince the Pope to call a Crusade against the Baltic States to bring them under the religious leadership of the Pope. Realising that becoming Orthodox would not stave off an invasion, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania married Polish Queen Jadwiga and became Catholic, gaining the whole of Poland in the process (good deal there). The Teutonic Knights now were unable to invade Poland-Lithuania, now a Christian country, but they were still able to launch the Livornia Cursade to turn Latvia and Estonia Christian.

Today 77% of the country is Catholic and many faithfully attend mass in their Sunday best, a quite different scene from Western Europe and something that surprised my travel companion. It’s cathedral in the heart of the city, a very long walk from the Gates of Dawn, called the Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus of Vilnius. It is a mouthful to pronounce and a huge basically at that. From the moment Catholicism became the major religion, subsequent Grand Dukes were coronated in the grounds.

Catholic Cathedral of Vilnius

But it is not just the Catholics, another well represented group of Christians in Vilnius are the Orthodox Christians, the second largest group at 4% of the population, their cathderal in Vilnius, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit was barely 5 minutes from the Gate of Dawn.

Orthodox Basillica of the Holy Spirit

More churches greeted us from a plethora of congregations. Christianity has thrived here in the Gate of Dawn and throughout Lithuania, because it is more than just a religion, but also a form of national identity, just like how the Polish people and their Catholic devotion is an integral part of being Polish. Catholicism plays the same role in this country.

We continued walking down the Gates of Dawn and passed even more churches into the former Jewish Ghetto. The fate of Judaism in Lithuania would, however, be very different…


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