Fairfield County Catholic, November 2009
The first time I visited Lithuania, 19 years ago, Soviet tanks still crouched in the side streets. Fifteen years later, I went again to find the country had undergone enormous changes, all for the better. And now I have just returned from my third visit. It has been like seeing a favorite friend at irregular intervals.
On return to London, one of us said, “Where would you go now, if you could choose anywhere in the world?”
“Straight back to Vilnius!” said I.
When one enthusiastically recommends a book, a person or a place to someone else, it very often has the opposite effect. Why is that, I wonder? Contrariness or overkill?
But I find it difficult not to gush about Lithuania. It is quite my favorite country in Europe – possibly because it is rather small, as am I. Or because it is a northern country criss-crossed by rivers, with a pure northern light all of which I find familiar, coming as I do from the Lake District in the north of England. Or perhaps because the Lithuanians are a tall, quiet, strong people with an offbeat sense of humor and proven bravery, whereas I am noisy and rather cowardly.
Whatever the reason, I fell for Lithuania years ago, and nothing has changed that.
If you are lucky enough to arrive at Vilnius Airport on a clear evening before sunset, you will see a fairyland city spread out beneath you. The rivers Neris and the lively Vilnia, after which the capital city is named (vilnis means “wave”), wind among densely wooded hills; the old buildings and the new sprinkled on either side. It is a sparkly clean city; light and airy like Paris, but less self-consciously planned, more random. It is a city one can get to grips with, as it were, for most of it is accessible on foot. Indeed the athletic volley-and-basket ball-playing Lithuanians go almost everywhere on foot.
This short article outlines just a few of my favorite haunts in the Old City. There is no time to explore the rich treasures of the environs in a minibus, or venture further afield where there is much to see: the dunes of the Baltic Sea, for example, 200 miles to the north beloved of Thomas Mann; castles and fine cathedrals and churches in almost every district. If you can fit in a longer visit, you will be well rewarded.
Wherever you look in Vilnius there is a spire, a belfry, a dome. Not for nothing has it been called the “City of Forty Churches.” The “Vilnius Baroque” style of architecture is much in evidence; great buildings that are highly painted and decorated with many sculptures, of which Saints Peter and Paul Church boasts more than 2,000. Occasionally paintings and statues are clad in silver, disclosing just the face and hands.
The miraculous Madonna at the Gate of Dawn Shrine, Ausros Vartu, is one such. Her beautiful image was painted in the 1620s on eight joined-oak panels; the silver gilt casing was crafted at the end of the 18th century. The chapel where the painting hangs is in the only surviving gate in the old city wall. Lithuania regained independence in 1991 and shortly afterwards, Pope John Paul II visited the city and prayed before this Holy Virgin.
Saint Christopher is the patron of the capital, but Saint Casimir (1458-1484) is the patron of the nation. His tomb and statue in the cathedral are also clothed in silver where they are housed in a magnificent chapel devoted to him. In fact, the whole chapel shines with silver that is used almost like paint. This gives a gloriously soaring effect, as if going straight to Heaven with the carved angels and seraphs that reach almost to the roof.
Deep below the cathedral and the Chapel of Saint Casimir are two layers of pagan worship, with a Christian layer sandwiched in between. The Church, in her wisdom, built on local pagan shrines, physically obliterating them on the one hand and spiritually demonstrating with the other that here is the new place of worship, renewed and glorified.
The cathedral was taken from the Church and used as an art gallery during Soviet times. Amazingly, almost all the churches in Vilnius have now been repaired after the appalling ravages of war and 60 years of occupation, and the majority returned to the Church for worship.
This is a city where you trip over history at every corner. The Church of Saint Casimir – as distinct from the chapel in the cathedral – is a microcosm of the last 400 years’ history of Vilnius. Founded by the Jesuits in 1604, it was consecrated in 1635, and burned down twenty years later when the Russian army stormed and captured Vilnius. Twice rebuilt and twice destroyed, the church was reconstructed in 1753. When the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773, it was handed over to the Augustinians, but in 1812 the invading French army turned it into a granary!
In 1839, the Russians presented Saint Casimir’s to the Orthodox Church, which re-named it Saint Michael’s, and drastically altered it in the Orthodox style. Come 1915, the German army gave the church to the Lutherans as a house of worship for their army. Eventually it was restored to the Jesuits of the Polish Province, and then from 1940 Lithuanian Jesuits took charge. They replaced the crown of Saint Casimir on the cupola, symbol of Lithuanian independence and a well-known city landmark.
Alas, the church was brutally closed again by the Soviets in 1949, the entire contents destroyed, and the building turned into a Museum of Atheism. In 1988, Saint Casimir’s was returned to the Catholic community and, after intense restoration, was re-consecrated in 1991, and the Jesuits came home. God grant they may remain for years to come!
Christianity came late to Lithuania in 1387, when the population converted en masse by the order of Grand Duke Jogaila. Even today one feels close to the old gods and the old ways. Many first names are of ancient origin connected with nature or pagan worship: Egle, meaning fir tree, for example; Austeja, goddess of bees; Azuolas meaning oak, or Gabija the flame goddess. The country retains many rural crafts and preserves its folklore with tenacity, so that one never feels far from fields, hills, and country life. Songs, dances, and costume all attest to this, and there are many gift shops where one can buy examples of local linen or wood or straw work.
One example is Easter eggs. These are hardly the costly baubles made for the Tsars by Fabergé. Here real eggs are blown and then dyed in the natural earthy colors of roots and plants in varying shades. Traditional patterns may be painted on them or, even more skillfully, scratched out with a tiny blade revealing a different shade beneath. These eggs will pass carefully from one generation to the next, together with the Easter Lamb. National costume likewise reflects the same sort of natural coloring.
Jerusalem of the North
Vilnius was once known as the “Jerusalem of the North,” and was home to the famous Rabbi Gaon (“the saintly genius”) whose fine memorial marks the site of his house. The city was the centre of great Hebraic learning since earliest times. Before the last war, nearly half the population of Vilnius was Jewish. There were 100 prayer houses in Vilnius; now there is only one choral synagogue. Between 90- 95 percent of the Jewish population was murdered on the spot, or deported to the death camps by the Nazis.
Today, there are many reminders of the horrors these people suffered, in museums, town centers, and cemeteries. Not only Jews, huge numbers of Lithuanian citizens were tortured and deported under the Soviet regime, some quarter of a million. Virtually every family lost at least one member.
The vision for Lithuania was multi-faith and multi-ethnic ever since the nation found itself short of skills and manpower in the 14th century. Germans, Ruthenians, Poles, Jews, Tartars, and others found a tolerant welcome. The diversity of their legacy of beliefs and cultures may be traced everywhere.
When I ate a bowl of soup, served in a small loaf of sour bread with the top cut off to make a lid, and was told it was probably Karaim (Crimean Jewish) in origin, I knew I was somewhere special! It is called cenakai, I believe, and was delicious.
Oh dear, I’ve run out of space and still haven’t mentioned music or balloons; the fabulously restored Palace of the Grand Dukes; the Three Crosses; or the haunting Eastern Rite Church of the Holy Trinity. So much to see, so much to leave for another visit!
Photo by Ben Morris