Landmark exhibition of Christianity in Lithuanian art

  • 2002-03-21
  • Gordon McLachlan

For all the magnificence of its monumental heritage, Vilnius has traditionally had only a very modest roster of museums. Even within Lithuania itself, they have tended to be overshadowed by their counterparts in Kaunas.

This is an ongoing consequence of the Polish occupation of Vilnius between 1920 and 1939, when Kaunas was developed as a showpiece national capital, even though its status was officially only a temporary one. As a result, to take just one example, all but a handful of the 300-odd painted works by the revered artist-composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis are to be found in the memorial museum in Kaunas, a city with which he had no more than a fleeting connection, rather than in Vilnius, where he spent much of his life.

However, since Dec. 28, 1999 the Museum of Applied Arts in Vilnius, which occupies the 16th-century Old Arsenal alongside the Lower Castle, has been given over to an exhibition of genuinely international quality, "Christianity in Lithuanian Art."

This celebrates both the new millennium and the 750th anniversary of the coronation in 1253 of Mindaugas - the only Lithuanian who took the title of king. Some of the exhibits belong to the Lithuanian Art Museum and have previously been on view.

But many others, which have been borrowed from churches and private collections throughout the country (with a few lent from abroad), have seldom or never been on public view.

Beautifully displayed and lit, the exhibition is a visual feast. It has filled an important gap in the city's range of cultural attractions, but unfortunately it will only be a temporary one, as it is due to close on Oct. 30, 2003.

Anyone with an interest in Lithuanian culture and history should make sure of seeing it before it closes.

Late conversion

Lithuania was, famously, the last nation in Europe to be converted. Although the Christian religion was accepted by Mindaugas in 1251, this was little more than a sham, which lasted no longer than a decade. It did not lead to the conversion of much of the population.

The Teutonic Knights failed to convert the country by force, despite repeated campaigns.

It was not until 1387 that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania adopted Christianity, acceptance of the Roman Catholic faith having been made a precondition of a union with Poland, when Grand Duke Jogaila married Queen Jadwiga of Poland.

Christianity has played a key role in the life of the country ever since and retains a strong hold to the present day, despite half a century of communist repression.

Although Lithuanians are not, as a rule, as fervently devout as their Polish neighbors, around a third of the population attend church services at least once a month, while a similar percentage go irregularly, usually to celebrate the main religious festivals.

The centerpiece of the exhibition's first-floor displays is the Vilnius Cathedral treasury, which has had a decidedly eventful history.

Over the centuries, monarchs, nobles, bishops and clergymen endowed it with dazzling masterpieces of decorative art made in some of the most prestigious European workshops.

It suffered many losses in wars in the 17th century against the Russians and Swedes, but continued to be augmented by important new gifts. In 1939, it was bricked up for safekeeping in a false wall of the cathedral, and for several decades was believed lost.

Amazingly, it was found in 1985 by three local men. They kept their discovery secret from the Soviets for fear it would be removed to Moscow. Only in 1998, when the country's independence was reckoned to be fully secure, was the public officially informed.

Invaluable art

A 14th-century French ivory diptych of four scenes from the life of Christ was, it is believed, given by Pope Urban to Grand Duke Jogaila on the occasion of the latter's marriage and baptism in 1386 and subsequently donated to the cathedral at the time of its foundation a couple of years later.

The oldest chalice on display was made in the 15th century in Danzig (now Gdansk). The stipula or ritual stick used by the cathedral's precentor is of the same era.

From the following century there are a huge gilded monstrance and a crystal cross-reliquary, both of which were given by the Gostautas family. A particularly rich group of 17th-century artefacts includes a gold monstrance studded with precious stones and enamels given by Bishop Jurgis Tiskevicius, and three pieces donated by Bishop Mikalojus Steponas Pacas - the reliquary of St. Mary Magdalene dei Pazzi from Florence, and a spectacularly florid monstrance and chalice made in the German city of Augsburg.

Of special note among the 18th-century objects is the sarcophagus of Josaphat Kuncevitius, a martyred Uniate archbishop.

Displayed alongside the cathedral treasures are some beautiful items from around Lithuania. Notable artefacts from other churches in Vilnius include a 16th-century monstrance from the Church of the Holy Spirit, and a ciborium given to the Church of St. John at the end of the same century by Jurgis Radvila, the first Lithuanian to gain a cardinal's hat.

From the Church of the Assumption in Trakai there are 17th-century crowns made to adorn the miraculous painting known as "The Madonna of Trakai."

On either side of the treasury chamber there are halls devoted to the Vilnius and Samogitia bishoprics. These feature galleries of portraits of the bishops themselves, though all are of provincial quality save for that of Povilas Algimantas Alseniskis, a penetrating example of Italian Renaissance portraiture by Giovanni dal Monte.

There are also copious examples of the quite different liturgical garments favored in the two dioceses down the centuries. There's also an important piece of furniture in an 18th-century credence made from birch with intarsia, gilded bronze, leather and veneering.

The collection of French and Flemish tapestries in Vilnius Cathedral, which includes mythological and genre scenes as well as religious subjects, is on display throughout the first floor.

Old masters

Upstairs, the gallery of paintings is mostly devoted to lesser-known artists, the pick of Lithuania's modest holdings of old masters having their permanent home in Kaunas rather than Vilnius. Nonetheless, there are several notable works on view.

"St. Ursula and the Martyrs" is an example of the highly distinctive art of Bartholomeus Spranger, a strange but compelling Flemish painter who was one of the leading lights in the rather bizarre court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in late 16th- and early 17th-century Prague.

Another prime mannerist painting is "An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments," a Protestant tract by the Dutchman Cornelis van Haarlem. There are also some characteristic 17th-century Italian canvases by Lodovico Carracci, Salvator Rosa, and Carlo Dolci, a few Spanish works, and a fine "Lot and His Daughters" by the leading exponent of Austrian Baroque, Johann Michael Rottmayr.

On the first floor there are areas devoted to Lithuania's religious minorities. A display of icons includes examples from Orthodox, Old Believers and Uniate (or Greek Catholic) congregations. The last of these, a denomination peculiar to the old Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, often shows the influence of Catholic art, since the Uniates recognize the authority of the pope while adhering to Orthodox ritual and practice, including the right of priests to marry.

In the section on Protestantism, the crucial role the Reformation played in the development of Lithuanian as a written language is highlighted. On display there are early editions of some of the key books, including the very first to use Lithuanian, Martin Maivydas' "Catechism" of 1547.

There are also a number of krikstai, distinctive grave crosses that can still be seen on Lithuania's western Curonian Spit, and some splendidly austere silverware from the Calvinist stronghold of Birzai, a town in northern Lithuania that was for a long time the private property of the powerful Radvila (Radziwill) dynasty.

The exhibition concludes with an outstanding display of folk art. Lithuania's legacy in this field is notable for its highly distinctive ornamental forms. Particularly remarkable is the way ancient pagan motifs - especially those associated with the sun and other celestial bodies - have survived down the centuries and been mingled with Christian symbols to create patterns that have no parallel anywhere else in art history.

The wooden crosses on display are characteristic of rural Lithuania. About 20 of them are by the acknowledged master of the genre Vincas Svirkis (1835-1916). A set of color drawings by Kazys Simonis shows them in their original locations.

Smaller devotional figures include several examples of the distinctively Lithuanian "Rupintojelis" or "Man of Sorrows," which is itself adapted from an earlier pagan subject and shows a pensive figure of Christ resting his chin on the palm of his right hand. An array of paintings, processional banners, embroideries and lanterns reveal the sheer diversity of the Lithuanian folk art tradition.