Celebrating the legacy of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy

  • 2011-08-24
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

GOING BACK IN TIME: Poster of St. Bartholomew Fair.

VILNIUS - Since 1979, the restoration work of the newly-found wall-paintings of the baroque epoch has been going on in one of numerous yards of Vilnius University (Universiteto Street 3). The frescos were found on the walls of buildings in the Great Yard, the one with St. Johns’ Church (Johns are plural because the church honors two Johns). Some of the frescos on the walls of university buildings are already restored, while the recently found paintings are still under scaffolding. The old frescos portray the biggest former sponsors of Vilnius University.

The first frescos were found in 1979 when Vilnius University was celebrating 400 years since it was established. The celebration itself was regarded as controversial by the Moscow authorities because Vilnius University, founded in the capital of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in 1579, was the oldest university on the territory ruled by them, while the oldest university in Russia, Moscow University, was founded two centuries later, in 1755. Those facts contradicted the official Soviet version of history about the enlightenment coming from Moscow, to the “liberated” areas. The situation was also complicated by the fact that Vilnius University was established by Jesuits (they regarded the university as their Catholic tool to fight against Calvinism, which was popular in Lithuania in the 16th century) – this was not a fact that suited well the official Soviet state atheism. Anyway, due to the diplomatic skills of Vilnius University Rector Jonas Kubilius, who is a world-famous mathematician and physicist, the celebration was allowed, and even financing was received for the restoration of the ancient buildings of Vilnius University. During those restoration works the first frescos, which were covered with dye during previous centuries, were discovered.

One of the most splendid of these wall-paintings portrays Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last ruler of the confederation of Lithuania and Poland. He ruled from 1764–1795. He was elected to this post by the joint parliament of the Republic of Both Nations due to strong pressure from Russia. Poniatowski was a former favorite lover of Russian Empress Catherine, but he was not an absolute puppet of her, as she could have expected. The greatest achievement during his rule was his support for the confederation’s constitution of May 1791, which then was the second adopted democratic constitution in the world, after the constitution of the United States, which was adopted almost four years earlier (the article “Grand Duchy of Lithuania” in Wikipedia wrongly states that the Constitution of 1791 abolished the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – in fact, the Law on Mutual Guarantees for Both Nations of October 1791, confirmed that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is an equal part of the dualistic confederation). The acronym “IHS” of the Latin-language “Iesus Hominum Salvator,” which means “Jesus, Savior of Man” (this is the emblem of the Jesuit order), is situated above this wall-painting. The fresco portraying Poniatwoski was discovered in 1993, but it has faded since then and was restored in full colors again last year.

Among recently found frescos is what is probably the portrait of the Lithuanian army commander-in-chief, John Carol Chodkiewicz (known in contemporary Lithuanian-language history books as Jonas Karolis Chodkevicius, or Katkevicius). At least the people restoring the frescos think that they found a portrait of him, though they are not absolutely sure yet about the identity of the portrayed. The Lithuanian army, led by that military chief, defeated the Swedish army of Swedish King Charles IX in the Battle of Kircholm (now Salaspils in Latvia) in 1605. Soon after that, he marched his troops into the Moscow region, because the Russians decided to kick out from the Kremlin the soldiers of the commonwealth of Lithuania and Poland, and later he was fighting mostly against the Russians, though he perished in 1621 fighting against the Ottoman army in the territory which is now Ukraine.

Those who want to feel the atmosphere close to the times of those pictured sponsors of Vilnius University can go to the St. Bartholomew Fair of ancient crafts, which is mostly in the style of the epochs of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, in Rotuses Square (at the end of Didzioji Street) on Aug. 26-27. It will be open from 11:00 to 21:00. The opening procession, via the Old Town, will start at the Gate of Dawn (Ausros Vartai) at 12:00 on Aug. 26. There will be plenty of ancient-style performances by Lithuanian and Czech artists at Rotuses Square throughout both days of the fair, which has its roots in 1495. The Czechs are not incidental guests – the ties between both countries are historical: Prague University was a popular destination for Lithuanians before the establishment of Vilnius University.

On Aug. 28, history maniacs can go to watch the Middle Ages-style fights (free entrance for watching, not fighting) performed by the warfare fighting club Antikos Karys, which will take place in the Cathedral Square next to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and the monument to Gediminas, the official founder of Vilnius city and Lithuanian grand duke, though some historians, like Brit S.C. Rowell, prefer to call him the king of Lithuania.
It is also worth considering going on that day to the concert of the ensemble Le Concert Brise, from France. This concert of ancient music will take place in the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania (Cathedral Square 3) at 18:00 on Aug. 28. Tickets are available at www.bilietupasaulis.lt online, ticket offices - the list of offices can be found here: www.bilietupasaulis.lt/eng/salespoints - or one hour before the concert in the Palace of the Grand Dukes, which historically was used to host concerts in such style some centuries ago.

Those who are interested in the atmosphere of the pre-Christian Lithuanian Grand Duchy can go to camp at the international post-folk alternative music festival Menuo Juodaragis (“The Black Horned Moon”), dominated by the spirit of the ancient Balts on the lake island near the town of Zarasai in north-eastern Lithuania on Aug. 26-28. Look for more info at www.mjr.lt/en/festival and buy tickets via www.tiketa.lt  or at the music store Ragaine on Pilies Street 6 in Vilnius Old Town, where tickets are the cheapest.