Taking into consideration the strong devotion to Catholicism displayed by most Lithuanians, one may be surprised to discover that this was the very last European country to convert to Christianity. This is even more difficult to believe having in mind the number of churches in Vilnius. Large and small, magnificently rich and ascetic – they attract, amaze and inspire
Out of the whole Lithuanian sacral heritage, there is one building that enjoys particular interest. This famous building is Vilnius Cathedral. Reminding of a classical Greek temple, somewhat austere, yet warmly welcoming, it is the place that every Lithuanian Catholic has visited at least once in a lifetime.
In Sventaragis valley, at the place where the present Cathedral stands, once was a pagan altar, on which sacrifices to god Perkunas were offered in pre-Christian times. The first cathedral at this place was supposedly built in the 13th century by the Lithuanian king Mindaugas, who, seeking favours from Livonians, converted to Christianity. The rest of the country, though, remained pagan, and as soon as Mindaugas died, his cathedral again turned into a pagan sanctuary. The year of 1387 saw christening of Lithuania, with Jogaila becoming a King of Poland and a Grand Duke of Lithuania. Following Jogaila’s order, the temple was destroyed and a new Gothic Cathedral was built on the same spot.
Since that time, the Cathedral’s fate was highly turbulent. It burned several times, after which was repeatedly restored and renovated. It acquired features of such architectural styles as Renaissance and Baroque. In 1769, the façade tower fell, killing 7 people.
At the end of the 18th century, architect Stuoka-Gucevicius reshaped the cathedral, after which it finally took its present appearance. It is Stuoka-Gucevicius who rendered the cathedral a rectangular shape, which was especially favoured by the Classical architecture. It is him who designed the Cathedral’s distinctive portal with six columns and a triangular pediment, making the cathedral one of the most outstanding monuments of Classicism in the whole Commonwealth of Both Nations.
Soon after his death, the Cathedral was provided with the three statues erected on the pediment. The sculptures are st. Stanislov, st. Casimir, and st. Helen. The original sculptures were taken down following the order of the Soviet authorities. It is only in 1992 that sculptures were recreated by the sculptor Kuzma.
In 1950, Vilnius Cathedral was closed, and in 1957 a picture gallery was opened inside. One can still feel the atmosphere of the gallery when walking along the aisles and looking at the pictures on the walls.
In 1989 the cathedral was returned to Catholics and since then it has remained the central Lithuanian church.
Whereas the general interior of the Cathedral seems rather prudent and reserved, the true beauty is revealed by the chapels. Each of the 11 Cathedral’s chapels is different from the rest and belongs to a particular period. The real treasure of the cathedral is the Chapel of st. Casimir.
The oldest chapel in the Cathedral, st. Casimir Chapel is a perfect monument of the Late Baroque period, having no analogues in this part of Europe. Boasting of quite a number of artworks, it had been built long before Stuoka-Gucevicius reconstructed the Cathedral. The building of the chapel was started at the beginning of the17th century by King Zigmantas Vaza and finished by his son Vladislav. The chapel is also the place where the sarcophagus of the Lithuanian patron saint St. Casimir has been kept for centuries. Because the Cathedral was used as a gallery for most part of the Soviet period, the body of St. Casimir was for a long time kept in st. Peter and Paul’s Church. In 1989, it returned to where it belongs – to the Cathedral.
Another important part of the Cathedral is its catacombs. In 1931, the Cathedral was flooded by the river Neris. During its repair, a number of crypts were found with the remains of some members of the royal family, for whom a mausoleum was designed in subsequent years.
Another interesting find is the oldest Lithuanian fresco, dating back to as early as the XIV-XV century. Painted with mineral pigments, it portrays Jesus, Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist.
Also, in the Cathedral catacombs, one can see the remains of the first Mindaugas cathedral and the older pagan temple (XIII-XIV centuries).
The Cathedral Belfry is extremely versatile, both historically and architecturally. At first sight, it seems to be incorporating four different levels, each representing a distinctive architectural style. In fact, under the foundation, there are remains of still another structure – archaeologists discovered some parts of nearly the oldest brick building in Lithuania. The first section that one may see above the ground is what has remained of the defensive tower of the Lower Castle. Then, there are three more floors above the former defensive tower, two of which belong to Baroque period, while the third is the example of classical architecture. Despite it is a blend of style, the belfry looks exceptionally harmonious, perfectly fitting the general ensemble of the Cathedral Square.