The return of the saint

  • 2004-11-17
  • By Thomas Hviid
VILNIUS - It wasn't only the newly signed EU constitution that Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and President Valdas Adamkus brought home with them from the recent EU summit in Rome. Onboard their plane was another object, one that was certainly more familiar to most Lithuanians, and considerably more precious too.

The two statesmen also had with them Carlo Dolci's original painting "St. Casimir," a work depicting Lithuania's patron saint.

The work, which was painted in 1670 and is normally on display at the Galleria Palatina in Florence, Italy, is an iconic image in Lithuania, where its reproduction is to be found on the living room walls of many a person's home. And now, until Dec. 19, people will finally be able to see the original for themselves at the Lithuanian Art Museum in Vilnius. The painting is the centerpiece of a broader exhibition about St. Casimir's life.

"I think that it is somehow a small miracle that we now have the painting here in Vilnius," said Loreta Meskeleviciene, the deputy director for collections at the Lithuanian Art Museum. "Previously, we had no way of transporting the painting to Lithuania, but when our leaders had to go to Rome to sign the EU constitution treaty, we finally got the perfect chance."

The exhibition is especially timely because 2004 marks the 400th anniversary of the canonization of St. Casimir.

"We started discussing the possibility of taking the painting on loan back in July, and we hoped to be able to show it on Oct. 3, which is St. Casimir's birthday. Unfortunately, we weren't able to organize it at the time, but we are very happy to have it now," Meskeleveciene said, adding that it could only be due to a blessing from St. Casimir that the museum was now able to display the original painting.

Although the work has been on show for more than a week now, the Lithuanian Art Museum has been overwhelmed by the public interest in it. A large crowd showed up for the unveiling ceremony on Nov. 10, which was attended by several notables, including Prime Minister Brazauskas and the archbishop of Kaunas. Since then it has been an unusually busy time for the museum.

Prince of Poland

The importance of St. Casimir to Lithuanian history is extremely significant for a number of reasons. Although St. Casimir was a descendant of famous Lithuania dukes, such as Vytautas the Great, he was actually born as the prince of Poland in 1458. His father, also called Casimir, was the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1440 to 1492 and became the king of Poland in 1447, after which he established a close union between the two countries.

But St. Casimir never actually acceded to the throne, as he died from tuberculosis as a 25-year-old on one of his many trips to Lithuania. But the young prince was already held in high regard by many Lithuanians and was well-known for his pious devotion to God and the Virgin Mary. Carlo Dolci's painting actually depicts the saint singing to the Virgin Mary.

People came in large numbers to St. Casimir's grave in Vilnius shortly after his death, and he soon became associated with several miracles. His first miracle was said to have been performed in 1518 during a battle between Lithuanians and the Muscovites. A small Lithuanian force was defending the city of Polotsk and needed to cross the swollen Dauguva River. The soldiers prayed to St. Casimir, who appeared to them on a white horse and rode into the roaring river. Emboldened by this sight, the Lithuanians followed his example and crossed the river, fought fiercely and defeated the large Muscovite army.

The miracle was later confirmed by the Catholic Church as authentic, and Casimir was canonized in 1604. The date of his death - March 4 - was named as St. Casimir's Day, which is still widely celebrated in Lithuania by holding outdoor fairs around the country that sell various dried flowers and braided grass.

National symbol

St. Casimir became a figure of national self-importance for Lithuania not only because he was the only Lithuanian to become a saint, but because he helped the country in its fight against Russia. He grew into a symbol of the ongoing struggle against Lithuania's eastern neighbor and whenever the Russian enemy approached, his remains were hidden and taken outside Vilnius to a place of safe keeping. The Russians were only too aware of St. Casimir's importance, and during Soviet times they controversially turned St. Casimir's Church in Vilnius into a museum for atheism.

Today, St. Casimir's symbolic power remains as strong as ever in Lithuania's national mythology. His name is still a dominant force in the Lithuanian Catholic Church and many churches and religious organizations are named after him.

"His way of life showed that everybody can be a saint. You do not need to have superpowers and perform miracles in order to become a saint as many people might think. Instead, a real saint is a person who shows his true human side and his attitude to God, which reflects human and religious values," Ricardas Doveika, the pastor of Vilnius Cathedral said.

Vilnius Cathedral played a central role in St. Casimir's short life. When the young prince used to go to Vilnius, he lived in a castle beside the cathedral where he always went to pray. Sometimes he was found praying at the cathedral's closed gates at night, on the point of fainting from exhaustion. He was also well-known for his charitable work for the poor.

In 1948, St. Casimir was proclaimed the patron saint of youth. "He is an example for young people not to be afraid of being Catholic, while at the same time showing their human side. In this way, young people can find harmony. His simple lifestyle also showed that young people can be happy without focusing on material values," Doveika said.

As a young boy, Doveika said that St. Casimir was his inspiration, and today he feels very honored to be the pastor of Vilnius Cathedral. It's here that the last remains of Lithuania's patron saint are kept in a special chapel devoted to him, assuring that the presence of St. Casimir will live on in Lithuanian culture for many years to come. o

Carlo Dolci's painting of St. Casimir can be seen until Dec. 19 at the Lithuanian Art Museum, Arsenalo 3, Vilnius.