Vilnius History – I

St. Casimir’s Church

Vilnius through the Ages – the Story of a City

“During its 700 years of existence, Vilnius has experienced periods of prosperity and devastation, has been a cradle of cultures and victim of pan-European catastrophes.” In January of this – Vilnius’ anniversary year, the Baltic News Service/ published an overview of the evolution of Lithuania’s capital, providing interesting information about a place many of us know. The article was prepared in collaboration with Dr. Inga Leonavičiūtė, a researcher at the Faculty of History of Vilnius University, and Povilas Andrius Stepavičius, a researcher at the Vilnius Museum, a PhD student at Vilnius University. We will summarize it here for our readers in a short series.

Map of Vilnius

In January, 1323, Grand Duke Gediminas mentioned Vilnius for the first time in a letter to cities such as Lubeck, Stralsund, Bremen, Magdeburg, Cologne and others. He invited soldiers, merchants, craftsmen, and clergy to come and settle in Lithuania. A contemporaneous copy of the letter, which is kept in the Latvian State Historical Archives in Riga, is on display in Vilnius, in the Gediminas Castle Tower, from January 25 to June 4.

The first governor of the city, Dirsūnas, the “Elder of Kęstutis in Vilnius”, is first mentioned in historical sources In 1365. On February 17, 1387, King Jogaila allowed the establishment of  the Diocese of Vilnius, the first and main Catholic ecclesiastical institution in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In March of that year, he granted Vilnius the right of Magdeburg, which allowed its citizens to self-govern, regulate trade and crafts, and guarantee personal and property rights. Vilnius became a city of the sovereign, and also a self-governing city.

Barbora Radvilaitė and Sigismund Augustus

When Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania installed the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ruthenia in Vilnius in about 1416, the jurisdiction of the head of the Orthodox Church – the Metropolitan City – became the epicentre of the Ruthenian part of the city. Within its boundaries were the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary and other temples. In the 16th century, Vilnius had a total of 13 Orthodox churches and the Trinity Monastery.

The Gothic brick church of St. John was completed in 1426, the first parish church in Vilnius and one of the largest Gothic sacral buildings in the city. St Anne’s Church was built iin about 1500, a Gothic masterpiece and the subject of many legends.

Vilnius Town Hall was first mentioned in 1503 by Grand Duke Aleksandras (1492–1506), the last known ruler of the Gediminas dynasty to have maintained the family’s ancestral Lithuanian language. In the same year, the construction of a brick defensive wall of Vilnius began and was completed in 1522. The wall, about 3 km long, encircled the most densely populated core of the city. In the first half of the 17th century it had ten gates and a bastion.

The first printing house in Vilnius was established in 1522 by Francis Skoryna, who came from Prague He published the Little Book of Travels, the first printed book in the Grand Duchy.

In 1536, a brick bridge over the Neris River was completed on the site of the present-day Green Bridge. The bridge burned down in 1655 and was replaced by a wooden structure. Damaged by spring floods, the bridge was repaired or rebuilt several times, and after the rebuilding in 1766, it was painted green, which gave it the name it still holds.

Barbora Radvilaitė and Zigmantas (Sigismund) II Augustas, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, met in Vilnius in 1544 and began their secret love affair. Zigmantas Augustas officially presented Barbora as his wife and the Grand Duchess of Lithuania in 1547, with her coronation taking place in 1550 in the Cathedral in Kracow. Barbora died shortly afterwards and her body was buried in the Vilnius Cathedral.

The Jesuits came to Lithuania in 1569 on the initiative of Vilnius Bishop Valerijonas Protasevičius, and founded their college in 1570.

A wooden synagogue was built in Vilnius in 1573, and in 1642 a brick synagogue replaced it. The Great Synagogue of Vilnius became the most important spiritual and cultural centre for Lithuanian Jews. In the first half of the 17th century, Vilnius was home to 40 prominent rabbis, and in the 18th century, the great sage Gaon Eliyahu who made Vilnius known as the Jerusalem of the North. The Great Synagogue of Vilnius, which was badly damaged during the war, was finally destroyed in 1955-1957.

Synagogue in Vilnius

King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Stefan Batory issued a letter of privilege for the opening of Vilnius Academy on April 1, 1579, and on October 30, Pope Gregory XIII issued a bull confirming the reorganization of Vilnius College into a university. Vilnius University became the 112th university in Europe and for two hundred years was the easternmost university in Europe.

The oldest known plan and description of Vilnius was published in 1581 in the Cologne Atlas of the World’s Cities, Civitates orbis terrarum.

In 1604, the cornerstone of the church of St Casimir – the patron saint of Lithuania – was laid in Vilnius on the occasion of his canonization. The church was completed in 1618.  It is the first and the oldest baroque church in Vilnius. The church became a symbol of the beginning of the Baroque era. Throughout the 17th century, works of European significance were created, such as St Casimir’s Chapel at Vilnius Cathedral and the Church of St Peter and Paul in Vilnius.

(To be continued)