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Dozens of thousands see Vilnius Cathedral treasure

  • 2000-01-20
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - A sensational exhibition of the work of goldsmiths, known
as the "Vilnius Cathedral Treasure" and valued at thousands of
dollars went on public display for the first time. The history of
this treasure has unfolded like a mystery thriller.

The exhibition is called Christianity in Lithuanian Art and is
dedicated to the 2000th anniversary of Christ's birth and the 750th
anniversary of the baptism and crowning of Mindaugas, king of
Lithuania. The exhibition opened in the Applied Art Museum facility
of the Lithuanian Art Museum on Dec. 28 and will run until Oct. 30,
2003. This museum is more widely known among Vilnius locals as
Arsenalas - as it was an arsenal of guns during the Lithuanian Grand
Duchy.

The famous cathedral treasure was discovered on March 27, 1985. The
cathedral was used as a picture gallery during the Soviet occupation.
In 1985, during installation of air-conditioning, Romualdas Budrys,
then director of the gallery, now director of the Lithuanian Art
Museum, and his three friends found the treasure in the wall of the
Cathedral. They saw about 270 jewel-encrusted gold and silver
religious objects.

"The faces of my three colleagues turned white," remembers Budrys.

"Expecting the arrival of the Red Army in 1939, somebody hid the
treasure in the wall", he said.

Budrys added that on finding the treasure, they immediately
understood one important thing - Moscow should not know about it, or
the treasure will be moved to the capital of the U.S.S.R.

They revealed the treasure only to some Lithuanian Communist leaders
who had proven themselves to be patriots of Lithuania. The treasure
was hidden in one of the Vilnius museums with the knowledge of only
several persons. Moscow never found out about existence of the
Vilnius Cathedral Treasure.

Budrys also disclosed why the existence of the treasure was kept a
secret except from a few of the highest Lithuanian authorities after
the re-establishment of independence in 1990. In 1990 and 1991,
Soviet tanks were often to be seen on Vilnius streets and the
treasure was hidden from the Soviets.

Later, secrecy was kept because of fear of criminals and foreign art
collectors. Only in the summer of 1998 did the Lithuanian nation
learn that it possesses such a treasure.

Now, crowds of people are going to Arsenalas to see it. During the
first week of the exhibition, some 10,000 tickets were sold.

The amassing of the Vilnius Cathedral treasure started as early as
the 14th century, after the baptism of Lithuania in 1387 and
continued during several centuries of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy.

Lithuanian and Polish rulers and famous Lithuanian noble families
donated the many masterpieces. The Cathedral of Vilnius was the main
church of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. The Vilnius Cathedral Treasure
was famous throughout Europe.

Now, some 270 chalices, monstrances (a receptacle in which the
consecrated Host is exposed for adoration), reliquaries and other
liturgical articles created by the most famous Lithuanian and West
European goldsmiths are presented for exhibition to the public.

The most valuable item is a Gothic monstrance of gold and silver
donated by Albertas Gostautas, chancellor of the Lithuanian Grand
Duchy in the 16th century. The monstrance is 152 centimeters high and
weighs 20 kilograms.

"It is difficult to say what is more valuable - this monstrance or
St. Anne's church, Vilnius' masterpiece of gothic architecture," said
Budrys.

Another special gift of Gostautas is a nearly one meter high crystal
cross bound in gilded silver and adorned with large jewels. Budrys said that it is impossible to evaluate the Cathedral treasure. He said that it should be insured for several millions of U.S. dollars in case an exposition of Vilnius Cathedral Treasure went abroad, "though, in fact, it is impossible to measure the treasure's value in monetary terms."

The exhibition also shows religious paintings by Lithuanian, Italian and Flemish artists; 17th century tapestries created in Brussels and religious wooden Lithuanian folk art sculptures.

The exhibition represents art mostly related to the Roman Catholic Church.

There are, however, also small sections of Lutheran, Orthodox and
other Christian art. The entire exhibition occupies 3,000 square
meters.

There are also copies of documents related to the Church written by
the Lithuanian grand dukes. They were brought from the Vatican and
the Secret Prussian Archives in Berlin.

The exhibition starts with the portrait of Pope John Paul II and his
quote from 1987. Some time ago this Pope who is widely believed by
many to be of Lithuanian origin, expressed his wish to come to
Lithuania but Soviet authorities did not allow him to do so.

"The honorable Lithuanian nation was precious to my predecessors and
especially to my own heart. Lithuanians can look with pride to their
past and to their presence among the Christian nations of Europe. The
Lithuanian nation is the youngest daughter of the Roman Catholic
Church. However, it is the most valuable nation. It showed its
faithfulness and close ties with the Holy See and never departed from
its faith despite various troubles," reads the statement made by John
Paul II in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican in 1987.

The official patrons of the exhibition are Cardinal Vincentas
Sladkevicius and President Valdas Adamkus.

"I regard the initiative of the Applied Art Museum to be a
significant prelude to celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of the
Lithuanian state," Adamkus said at the opening ceremony of the
exhibition. German chronicles mentioned the "Lithuanian border" for
the first time in 1009, and Lithuania is going to celebrate its
millennium in 2009.

"This exhibition is a perfect example of cooperation between the
State and the Church," said Audrys Backis, Roman Catholic archbishop
of Vilnius.

The Vilnius Cathedral Treasure officially belongs to the Roman
Catholic Church. However, Budrys expressed hope that the nation will
be able to see the treasure after the end of the exhibition in
Arsenalas in 2003.

He expects the palace of the Lithuanian grand dukes to be rebuilt
near the Cathedral, a perfect place for the treasure to be displayed
as a symbol of Lithuania's statehood..

The palace, also a symbol of Lithuanian statehood, was ruined after a
Russian invasion in 1795. There is now a strong movement among
Lithuanian intellectuals to rebuild it.