History of Vilnius city



The establishment of the City of Vilnius has a very popular legend. Once upon a time the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas was hunting in the holy woods of the Valley of Šventaragis. Tired after the successful day hunt the Grand Duke settled for night there. He fell asleep soundly and had a dream. A huge iron wolf was standing on top a hill and the sound of hundreds of other wolves inside it filled all surrounding fields and woods. Upon wakeup, the Duke asked the pagan priest Lizdeika to reveal the secret of the dream. And he told: ”What is destined for the ruler and the state of Lithuania, let it be: the iron wolf means a castle and a town which will be established by the ruler on this site. The town will be the capital of the Lithuania lands and the dwelling of rulers the and glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world.


Vilnius was always open to different cultures, customs and nations. The churches of the capital Vilnius, which has an abundance of them, marvelously reflect this fast. As in every medieval city, the churches and monasteries have created the city’s unique character while the church towers have created its mood. The decorative churches facades, domes, towers and belfries with their wavy lines harmoniously flow into the hilly rhythm of the surroundings and adorn the Vilnius skyline.


Standing at the foot of Gediminas hill, Vilnius Cathedral is Lithuania’s spiritual and political centre. It is thought that in pagan times this was the location of an altar, an eternal fire, or ever a temple of Perkūnas. King Mindaugas built the original cathedral in 1251 after his conversion to Christianity. In 1387, on the occasion of the official conversion of the whole of Lithuania to Christianity, a gothic style cathedral was built. The coronation ceremonies of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania from Vytautas to Žygimantas Augustas took place there. Due to fires,wars and unstable ground, the Cathedral was rebuilt more than once. As a result, gothic, renaissance and baroque styles are reflected in its architectural history.
The most beautiful part of the Cathedral, the baroque chapel of St Casimir, was built in 1623-1636 at the initiative of King Sigismundus Vasa. The chapel contains a unique 18th century goblet-shaped pulpit and 18th century silver-plated statues of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and King of Poland .

After the last reconstruction was performed according to the design of Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius, the church acquired the strict quadrangular shape favored by French classicism. The Cathedra was the most monumental building with the purest classical style in the entire territory of the Polish-Lithuanian state (Rzeczpospolita). Now, a tall portico with 6 Doric columns and sculptures by the Italian sculptor, T. Righi, which stand in the niches, decorate the main facade of the Cathedral. The tympanum portrays the sacrifice of Noah.
The interior of the Cathedral is also very rich: there are more then 40 artworks from the 16th-19th centuries inside, both frescoes and small and large pictures. A museum, with and exposition reflecting the history of the building from the pagan temple until the present day, is located in the Cathedral’s catacombs. During the restoration of the Cathedral, the very first floor, laid in the days of Mindaugas, was found in addition to the remains of the Cathedral built in 1387, the altars of a pagan temple,and other archaeological finds. A fresco dated to the end of 14th century, the oldest known fresco in Lithuania, was found on the wall of one of the underground chapels.
The Cathedral’s bell tower (57 m or 187 ft ) was built atop a Lower Castle defensive tower. Its oldest underground square section was even built in the 13th century on the bottom of the old riverbed. The bell tower acquired its present appearance after the 1801 reconstruction.


The gates of Dawn are one of the symbols of the city of Vilnius. These gates are a famous Catholic shrine not only in the whole of Lithuania but also abroad. Built on the road to the city of Medininkai and originally called the Mrdininkai gates, they were one of the original five gates of Vilnius built together with city wall. The three-tiered gates stand in the southern part of the Old Town, open onto M. Daukša Street, and are connected to a surviving section of the defensive wall.
The building’s unique renaissance attic is decorated with a décor characteristic of that style. The main façade of the gates is adorned with gryphons bearing the arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Beside it to the east stands part of the city wall. This is the longest section of all those remaining.
The picture of the Mother of Mercy of the Gates of Dawn is wall known among Catholics worldwide. The image of the Virgin Mary, covered with gold by an unknown 17th century goldsmith, has the features of both the gothic style and icon painting. Painted with tempera on oak boards, it was later repainted with oil paints.


The first Evangelical church (Kirche) in this location was built in 1555 at the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Mikalojus Radvila Juodasis. The church is small and modest with an ornate nigh altar created by the architect, J. K. Glaubitz. Atop the 19th century tower is a nigh tin-plated spire. The height of the bell tower is 30 m (91 ft).


The Moorish-style Karaim temple was built in 1922-1923 and consecrated in 1922-1923. During the Soviet period, it was closed nad made into a warehouse. Now the Kenesa is once again serving the faithful. The Karaims are a small religious and national community, which was invited to Lithuania from Crimea by Vytautas, Grand Duke of Lithuania. ‘Karaim’ means ‘I am reading (the bible)’.


The Synagogue is the only remaining one of the one hundred and five synagogues and Jewish temples in Vilnius. It was built in the Moorish style in 1903. The Jewish temple has a nice copula and the tablets of Moses are portrayed on the tympanum. The façade bears the inscription in Hebrew: ‘A house of prayer is a holy place for all peoples’. Inside is a separate gallery set aside for women and a choir loft, which also has a small organ.


This Orthodox cathedral stands on the bank of the Vilnelė. It is thought that Julijona, the wife of Algirdas and the mother of Jogaila, established this church in the 14th century and was buried in it. In 1511-1522, Duke K. Ostrogskis rebuilt the almost-ruined old church. The new church was rebuilt in the gothic Byzantine style. In 1609, the church was passed to the control of the Uniates. Finally in 1808, the neglected church was sold to Vilnius University. An anatomy and veterinary museum as well as auditoriums and a library were established in the church. During 1864-1868 at the initiative of General Governor N. Muravyov, the cathedral was rebuilt, acquired its present appearance, and again became an Orthodox church. The present facades and domes imitate Georgian medieval architecture. The interior was recreated during the reconstruction. It is harmonious and has an especially ornate five-tiered iconostas studded with pictures.


The church and the Orthodox monastery were built in this location by the brotherhood of the Holy Trinity in 1567. The brick church was erected in 1638 and reconstructed and decorated in the rococo style by the architect J. K. Glaubitz, during 1749-1753. The simple massive bell tower adds to the calm and symmetric exterior of the church with its two early baroque towers and high (49 m or 161 ft ) dome. Inside the building, there is a great deal of ornate décor from the 18th century. The wooden baroque iconostas, which was created in the late baroque style J. K. Glaubitz, is especially valuable. The church’s vaulting is adorned with a big copula and the façade by two small towers. In 1826-1851, an underground crypt was installed under the iconostas for the burial of the remains of Saints Jonas, Eustchijus, and Antanas, who were the courtiers of Algirdas. At the initiative of Muravyov, the church was reconstructed: the dome was rebuilt and the façade changed significantly. It has reached our time almost unchanged from that date; after entering through the neo-Byzantine style gates, every visitor is greeted by the church, monastery and nunnery complex.


The church was built during 1620-1630 in early baroque (so-called Carmelite) style. A large friary was also built for the Carmelites at the same time.
During the Soviet times, the church housed a folk art museum but has now been returned to the faithful. The bell tower is high and massive with elaborate decorations. After a fire in the 18th century, it was restored and finished with a rococo-style dome roof. A large old rule Carmelite friary, constructed using the existing building is located near the church.


The Church of Lord Jesus or the Trinitarian Church is located behind the former Sapiega family mansion. The church was built during 1694-1717 through the efforts of Kazimieras Sapiega, the Voivode of Vilnius and the Hetman of Lithuania. The Friary, built for the Trinitarians, is located nearby. Above the great entrance door is a relief portraying an angel holding a Trinitarian and a prisoner ransomed by him.