Mystery of the three-handed saint

  • 2008-03-12
  • By Howard Jarvis

Better than two: The miraculous three-handed St. Casimir lies inside the Vilnius Cathedral. The icon is a Baroque masterpiece inside a neo-classical design

VILNIUS  - One of the must-see stops on any tour of Vilnius is the cathedral, for there is more to this grandiose display of Neo-Classicism than meets the eye. Besides the crypt, which snakes beneath the building to reveal a history that stretches back almost a millennium, the cathedral's essential highlight is the Chapel of St Casimir, a flamboyant Baroque masterpiece.

Vilnius Cathedral itself occupies the site of what was once an ancient, open pagan temple revered by Lithuanians and dedicated to the worship of Perkunas, god of thunder and fire.
According to some written sources, toads, grass snakes and other sacred creatures were kept nearby, ready for sacrifice on an altar that stood about five meters high. A fire blazed in a hollow in the temple, kept alight day and night and tended by virgins chosen for their beauty.

Over the 800 years since pagan times, five consecutive cathedral buildings have been built on the site, each in turn ravaged by fire, flooding or war. Twelve different floors have lain here, one on top of the other. A cross-section of each, right down to the pagan altar itself, is visible today in the cathedral crypt.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the young Lithuanian architect, Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevicius, known for bringing the fashionable French Classicist style to Baroque Vilnius, was commissioned to redesign the cathedral. His idea for both the exterior and interior was a visual recreation of a Greek temple.
The most resplendent of the cathedral's 11 small chapels is also the oldest, the early-17th-century chapel of the patron saint of Vilnius. Stuoka-Gucevicius kept this Baroque jewel inside his Neo-Classical overhaul. There was no question of doing without it.

The chapel, its curious cupola seen from the outside in the southeastern corner, should not be confused with the Church of St Casimir, the oldest surviving Baroque church in Vilnius, which stands on Didzioji Street.
One of the Baroque jewels of Vilnius, Italian masters created this passionately reverent chapel with its marble columns, frescoes and magnificent stucco figures in 1622-36, for the princely sum of 500,000 gold coins. With red marble from Galicia, and black, white and brown marble from the Carpathians, there is plenty to feast your eyes on.
It was built as a final resting place for the remains of St Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania, who died in 1484. Casimir (1458-84) was the second son of a Lithuanian Grand Duke whose siblings became kings and queens of European states through lineage and marriage.
The pious Casimir was more interested in faith, fasting and charity. He would often go to the cathedral to pray, even at night. The people of the court put tremendous pressure on him to change his ways, marry and learn the ways of state. This was especially the case when his elder brother Ladislaus became King of Bohemia and it became clear that Casimir would succeed his father and govern Lithuania and Poland.
When Casimir fell ill with tuberculosis at the age of 25, his chastity was seen as a possible cause. The cure, said the court's physicians, should be sex, and lots of it. Casimir, of course, rejected this immoral prescription. He died in Grodno, during a journey from Krakow to his beloved Vilnius.

After his death, it was rumored that his coffin could cure illness and disease. A fresco on one side of the chapel depicts the legend of Ursule, a sick orphan who prayed beneath the coffin and found herself miraculously cured. The fresco, painted with great artistry and perspective by Michelangelo Palloni, also shows her enraptured parents who had been overcome with distress.
On the opposite wall, another fresco by Palloni shows the moment when Casimir's coffin was opened by the clergy to see if the body had remained well-preserved. This was the sure sign of a saint. It had, even emitting a pleasant fragrance. Casimir was canonized in 1602.

The chapel has some delightfully odd features. The decorative panel at the back of the altar shows a Madonna and Child, a composition created by Giovanni Pietro Perti, famous for his incredible stucco work in another of Vilnius' Baroque masterpieces, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The Madonna has a broad smile, a detail that is very unusual for this kind of reverent artwork.
Beneath the coffin, a portrait of Casimir encased in silver shows the saint with three hands. Some say this was to emphasize his generosity 's he gave as if from three hands. Another suggestion is that the anonymous artist didn't like the original right arm he had created, so he painted another one over the top, but the colors of the original reappeared, some say miraculously. Besides his crown, which symbolizes his royal blood, he holds a lily, a symbol of purity. 

Up in the cupola are beasts and figures finely molded from stucco. An elephant symbolizes moderation 's an elephant never eats more than his share 's a mirror symbolizes seeing both sides of an argument, an elk stands for caution. Casimir possessed each of these qualities in equal measure.