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Vilnius Cathedral

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Vilnius Cathedral
Vilnius Cathedral

Vilnius Cathedral

Kerry Kubilius, licensed to About.com
Vilnius Cathedral was once a part of Gediminas Castle and continues to serve as a reminder of how the historic complex looked in the times of Lithuanian dukes and where its defensive structures were located in Old Town Vilnius. Its Neoclassical façade, created by architect Laurynas Gucevičius, boasts large columns and sculptures of the four Evangelists. On the roof stand three more sculptures: one of St. Casimir, one of St. Stanislas, and one of St. Helena holding a golden cross. The elegant symbol of Vilnius is accompanied by a free-standing bell tower which was once a part of the castle’s fortifications and marks where the river Vilia originally flowed. It’s one of Vilnius’ must-see sights!

Vilnius Cathedral is free to enter. If the main entrance facing Gediminas Prospect is closed, use the south-facing entryway. Unfortunately, the interior of the cathedral continues to bear the scar of Soviet rule and it remains largely unadorned. In Soviet times, it was used as a picture gallery, its chapels closed for storage. Many of its interior decorations were destroyed and have not been restored. Nevertheless, visitors can enjoy the spacious, austere quality of the cathedral if they draw their attention to a few important items of interest.

The most beautiful chapel of Vilnius Cathedral is the one dedicated to St. Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania. This Baroque chapel contains frescoes depicting the saint’s life as well as other decorations related to the princely saint. Born into royalty, Casimir was devoted to living a chaste and pious life. Casimir was canonized in Vilnius Cathedral and the chapel, off and on, served as a resting place for his remains.

The Sapiega Madonna, which glows against a background of gold and portrays a gentle-faced Holy Mary holding Christ under a celebration of angels, is an important Lithuanian religious image and has been credited with numerous miracles. It once hung in St. Michael’s Church, where the Church Heritage Museum is now housed, which was founded by members of the powerful Sapiega family. The Sapiega Madonna avoided damage and destruction during Soviet occupation and is now on display in its own chapel in Vilnius Cathedral.

The cathedral is said to be built on a former site of a pagan temple. Though the first Christian house of worship appeared in the 13th century under King Mindaugas, the site may not have been dedicated continuously to the Christian faith due to Lithuanian’s strong pagan heritage. Vilnius Cathedral looks very different from earlier iterations, though its Gothic core and successive renovations and additions have been identified. The cathedral has suffered fires, floods, and damage from invaders throughout its centuries-long history.

A visit to the catacombs, accessible with a guide, reveals structural secrets of the cathedral. A burial place for important people, including Barbora Razvilaite, one of Lithuania’s most beloved historic women, the cathedral stands on a built-in graveyard. When Vilnius flooded in the early 20th century, the cathedral suffered so much damage that it was necessary for experts to enter the catacombs and reinforce the foundation. When architects and archaeologists entered this place of rest, they salvaged what they could and created passageways that are now used for tours. An ancient fresco, well preserved in a darkened room and visible only via reflection, the royal tomb, and the cathedral’s cultural layers can be seen.

Vilnius Cathedral is open from 7 am to 7 pm every day with mass held at regular intervals on Sundays. Mass is also held at 5:30 pm on weekdays. Concerts are also occasionally given at the cathedral. More information can be found at the cathedral’s website, www.katedra.lt

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