National Museum presents ancient maps and books

  • 2011-04-13
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

TRAVEL IN TIME: The new English-language 408-page book “Lithuania on the Map,” which presents Lithuania’s maps from the first findings on the Baltic tribes’ area till the beginning of the 20th century, with the main accent on maps of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, is on sale in the National Museum of Lithuania.

VILNIUS - The New Arsenal - National Museum, which is situated on Arsenalo Street 1, near the base of the hill with the Tower of Gediminas on top of it, presents its new exhibition of ancient maps of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy and old Lithuanian books from the collection of famous abstract-style painter Kazys Varnelis. Those maps and books, which look like masterpieces of art, were never on show before. Some of them are so unique that no Lithuanian library has copies of them. Varnelis, who indeed was a passionate collector of Lithuanian history-related items, died on Oct. 29, 2010. The collection will be on show till Sept. 30.

Varnelis was born in the Lithuanian town of Alsedziai in 1917. He graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Kaunas and in 1941-1943 was director of the Ecclesiastical Art Museum in Kaunas. In 1943 he moved to Vienna to study in the Academy of Fine Arts. After WWII, Varnelis did not return to Soviet-occupied Lithuania but went to the United States, settling in Chicago. He made a living by owning a stained glass studio and producing stained glass windows, bronze and marble works, mostly for church interiors.

In the late 1960s, Varnelis earned fame due to his paintings in the style of constructivism, minimalism and op art. His paintings were bought by the Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute in Chicago and other museums. Since 1968, he was a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago. In 1978, Varnelis moved to Massachusetts where he turned his house into a private gallery with his works and his huge collection of Lithuania-related ancient maps and books, as well as the art of Europe, China and Japan.
Varnelis and his wife Gabriele re-emigrated from the USA to Lithuania in 1998. The Kazys Varnelis House-Museum was established by the Lithuanian government for exhibiting his works and his collection in the gothic-style rooms of a 15th century building of the former Merchants’ Guild, on Didzioji Street 26 in the Vilnius Old Town. Appointments are necessary, via email at or by phone +370 (5) 279 16 44, to visit the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum (excursion in English available).

The part of Varnelis’ collection on show in the New Arsenal presents not only the maps of the huge territory of the state of Lithuania in the 16th-18th centuries, but also a map of its capital, Vilnius, in 1576, a map of Klaipeda from the 18th century, and more than 100 other maps, including maps of battles. For those who want to study Lithuanian history in maps more carefully there is the new English-language 408-page book Lithuania on the Map, which presents Lithuania’s maps from the first findings on the Baltic tribes’ area till the beginning of the 20th century, with the main accent on the maps of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, and which is on sale at the entrance ticket office in the National Museum of Lithuania. The book costs 195 litas (56.50 euros). The book Lithuania on the Map can also be ordered via email at or by phone +370 (5) 212 02 58.

The exhibition also presents Varnelis’ collection of books, which look as if they were issued recently (paper quality was better in ancient times): Latin, French, German and English versions of the 17th century book Great Art of Artillery, by Lithuanian nobleman Kazimieras Simonavicius (also known as Kazimierz Siemienowicz), a manuscript by Prussia-based Lithuanian linguist Pilypas Ruigys (Philipp Ruhig in German and Philippus Ruhigius in Latin) of his German-language book of 1735 about the Lithuanian language, the Polish-Lithuanian-Latin dictionary of 1713, the Lithuanian-language Bible issued in Vilnius in 1816, and other artsy looking books.

The National Museum also shows its usual exhibitions covering the entire history of Lithuania. The museum was established in the 19th century by Lithuanian nobility, who were then fascinated with the history of pagan times, which were interesting times indeed: according to ethnography professor Daiva Seskauskaite, Lithuanian men then could have many easily divorceable wives and, according to history professor Edvardas Gudavicius, pagan Lithuanians launched raids to what is now the territory of Latvia to capture necessities for the stomach and other body parts, i.e. pigs and women (then the norms of etiquette were slightly different from the modern ones). 

There are a lot of sculptures of saints and crosses carved from wood on show in the New Arsenal. Varnelis would like it, because his father used to carve religious wooden sculptures. Jan van der Marck, the Dutch-born director of art museums in Chicago, Detroit and Miami (he, like Varnelis, died last year), stated that abstract decorative ornaments in Varnelis’ paintings could be inspired by ornaments found on traditional Lithuanian wooden sculpture.