Newly Restored, Lithuania’s Oldest Religious Icon is Accessible Once Again for Devotional Visits Inside a Reclaimed and Renovated Church
The Church of the Apostles St. Phillip and St. James, centrally located in Vilnius alongside Lukiskiu Square, is the house of worship to which Lithuania’s unique and precious religious icon — known as Lukiskiu Mother of God – has been returned after an absence of half a century. Its exact address is 10 Vasario 16-osios Street. Both the church and adjoining monastery complex belong to Lithuania’s Dominicans who serve the faithful and are responsible for this very recently meticulously restored sacred object.
What is unique about this particular icon? How it found its way into Lithuania originally and where it was eventually made accessible to the faithful present rather unusual circumstances. At the height of its territorial vastness, in the 17th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was involved in territorial wars. As a war prize at the end of one such battle with Moscovy, the Grand Duchy’s general of artillery, Motiejus Korvinas Gosievskis, brought back with him an icon now referred to as the Lukiskiu Mother of God icon. For the rest of the general’s life, it was kept in his residence, the Manor of Dumbliai. Upon his death, his son Vincentas handed over the icon to the Dominicans in the monastery of Seinai (Poland), a town formerly part of Lithuania, situated near Lithuania’s southern border. In 1684, the monks of Seinai presented the icon as a gift to the Dominican monastery housed next to the Church of St. Phillip and St. James. Once the appropriate space for it was readied inside the church, this icon, along with its decorative casement and dedication texts, was mounted in a niche above the main altar. Shortly after its installation, events considered miraculous and attributed to the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy, as she is revealed in this icon were witnessed by some of the parishioners. These developments were recorded and described in a 1737 publication entitled “The Mystic Fountain.”
What eventually brought about the removal of the icon from this church?
The first church, opened in 1624 in this very same location, was a humble wooden building that eventually burned down. In 1690 the construction of a redesigned brick-and-mortar structure was begun and its principal parts were completed between 1727 and 1737. Among the churches of Vilnius, this rectangular-shaped structure adorned with two predominant spires is ranked as that city’s outstanding Baroque church. Between 1713 and 1739 the adjoining monastery was built concurrently and finished with an exterior of stone. Also in the 18th century, a fresco depicting The Virgin Mary surrounded by angels was painted above the portal. Subsequently two life-sized sculptures were installed in the two exterior niches above the main entrance. One was in honour of St. Hyacinth (1185-1257), a follower of St. Dominic and a Dominican friar whom, in 1686, Pope Innocent XI declared Protector of Lithuania; and the other of St. Dominic (1175-1221), priest and founder of the Dominican order whose spirit of moderation, clarity of thought, and burning zeal for souls have become the heritage of the Dominican order. Thus Lithuania’s Dominican friars carried on faithfully with their vocational duties until the middle of the 20th century when life-altering changes intervened. With the aggressive Soviet occupation of Lithuania in the 1940’s, things changed drastically throughout the entire country including the fate of this particular church. For close to fifty years, the church building was not used as a church and was dreadfully neglected. Along with the desecration of the church, the icon of Mary, Mother of Mercy, that had been in the care of Lithuania’s Dominicans for well over two centuries, had disappeared mysteriously and its whereabouts were unknown throughout this entire period.
1993 – The year of re-establishment of the Church of St. Phillip and St. James. In 1992, the building was returned to the Catholic Church, and in 1993 the Dominicans re-established themselves in it once again. The restoration of the church interior began immediately. Today, the main altar features the restored painting of the apostles St. Phillip and St. James. Over time, the Lukiskiu Dominicans succeeded in retrieving the lost icon. In 1998, it was revealed that during the Soviet period this icon had been in the secure care of another Vilnius church, the Church of St. Raphael. As part of its most recent renovation, the Church of St. Phillip and St. James has added some new decorative touches including special attention given to the chapel dedicated to St. Hyacinth, situated at the base of the south tower. Existing artistically significant frescoes depicting scenes from his unusually varied life were affected by the neglect the building sustained during the 50-year Soviet interim; they too have been restored to best effect. St. Hyacinth’s achievements included establishing monasteries in Prague, Krakow, Kiev, and Gdansk as well as carrying on with additional work in Prussia and in other Baltic locations. In 1231, he visited Lithuania.
The icon of Lukiskiu Mother of Mercy: A summary of its origins, both artistic and religious, and its history to date. Icons were first created and became part of religious reverence in the Byzantium about 1,500 years ago. The term icon, now part of modern everyday language, means image in Greek. In the religious context, an icon is a representation of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a saint, especially one painted in oil on a wooden panel, depicted in a traditional Byzantine style and venerated in an Eastern Church. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire, the practice of painting icons was relocated into Russia where icons continued to be made until the Revolution. And it was that historic background that traces the Lukiskiu Mother of God icon to its origin in Russia about 500 years ago. This fact was verified when Lithuanian experts in religious art consulted renowned Russian experts who, after meticulous research, made the ultimate determination. This icon, also referred to as “Mary guiding the way,” shares with other icons of this period some of their identical features: The Blessed Virgin looks at us with compassion and love. Her clothing indicates royalty with the colour red representing Christ’s passion and blue indicating her virginity. The eight-pointed star on her veil represents guiding the faithful to heaven as the star guided the Magi. As she holds Jesus on her left arm, with her right hand she points to her Son as the way to salvation. In his left hand, the infant Jesus holds a scroll symbolizing holy scriptures, and with his right hand he performs a blessing.
The restitution of the icon and its return to its rightful place
Dr. Tojana Raciunaite, an art researcher in Lithuania who devoted a great deal of time and effort studying this particular icon, states that it is one of a number of such sacred icons that were accepted by and incorporated into Catholic churches throughout Lithuania as reverential sources of grace. Their presence in Lithuania’s churches has led to a devotional following among the faithful. Over time parts of the Lukiskiu icon had become covered over with additional layers of paint that obscured some of its authentic features. It took five years of scrupulous and patient effort to remove these excess layers and to restore this icon to its original state. This was accomplished in the Lithuanian Art Museum’s restoration centre under the supervision of Mr. Pranas Gudynas. According to expert determination, it was concluded that this icon dating from the Grand Duchy period is the oldest sacred painting in all of Lithuania. Following a widely publicised introduction of the restored icon to the public at large at an exhibition in the Museum of Sacred Church Heritage, in May, 2013, a ceremonial re-installation inside the Dominican church of the icon of Lukiskiu Mother of God took place at long last. Once it was returned to its original niche beside the main altar in the Church of St. Phillip and St. James, the Dominicans also installed security equipment for its safeguarding. The Dominicans of Vilnius invite visitors to their beloved church as one way of reconnecting with the Blessed Virgin through acknowledgment of the inspirational presence of the icon of Mary, Mother of Mercy.