Installment: Vilnius, Lithuania by Elliott Hester
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to Lithuanian legend, when Grand Duke Gediminas went hunting and
killed a wild ox, he fell asleep at the foot of a hill and dreamed
of an iron wolf that howled with the ferociousness of 100 wolves.
A pagan priest told Gediminas that the dream was in fact a prophecy.
The Duke had been chosen to build a castle on the hill and establish
an unconquerable city, a city with the vigor of an iron wolf.
in the early 1320s, therefore, Gediminas erected the castle on what
is now Gediminas Hill. At the foot of the hill he founded Vilnius,
a city he named after the Vilnia River which flows through its heart.
Although the castle lay in partial ruins, and Lithuania lost it's
bid to be impregnable (it was occupied by Germans and Russians for
50 years before regaining independence in 1991), Vilnius' old town
maintains an architectural legacy that the Grand Duke would be proud
Indeed, with more than 1.5 thousand antiquated structures, this
is one of the largest old towns in Eastern Europe. So precious are
the many 16th- and 17th-century structures, UNESCO named the area
a World Heritage site.
Although the city is often touted as a Baroque wonderland, the buildings
are a blend of many architectural styles. The numerous Catholic
and Russian Orthodox churches, for example, display Classical, Byzantine,
Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque designs. Most can be appreciated
during a casual day-long walk.
from my base at the City Park Hotel in the city center, I crossed
the street to Cathedral square, where skateboarders and Frisbee
aficionados congregate on a daily basis. Towering above them is
Having suffered damage from storms, floods, and fires since it was
erected on the site of a pagan sanctuary some 600 years ago, the
Cathedral underwent multiple reconstructions and renovations. The
result is architectural schizophrenia.
The front and side façades are lined with huge, Classically
designed columns. Behind the columns, some sculptures show evidence
of Vilnius Baroque (a style reminiscent of ancient Roman and Greek
architecture). Other sculptures, such as those depicting 7 of the
grand dukes, are fashioned in decorative Rococo.
While 4 Doric columns rise above the Cathedral's high altar, St.
Casimir's Chapel (one of 11 interior chapels) boasts pink and white
marble walls, silver-plated statues, and white stucco relief work
on the wooden pulpit and the frescoed cupola. The overstated ornamentation
is a tribute to high Baroque.
along the south side of the Cathedral, I turned right on Pilies
Gatve (Castle Street), the main entrance to Old Town. The hub of
café and restaurant life, Pilies is adorned with antique
lanterns and flower-lined balconies that jut out handsomely across
the winding cobblestone lane.
Farther along, where Pilies Gatve becomes Didzioji Gatve, the neo-Byzantine
Russian Orthodox Church of St. Paraskeva is worthy of note. It was
here in 1705 that Peter the Great baptized Abrahm Hannibal, the
Ethiopian former slave who went on to become a general in Peter's
Russian army. (Hannibal is also the great-grandfather of Russia's
beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin.)
Another Russian Orthodox sanctuary, the Church of St. Michael, is
only a few steps away. Fire destroyed the old Gothic church that
originally stood on this site. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style,
but in 1865 the church endured another reconstruction. This time
the tribute went to Russian Byzantine. Still, the walls, façade
and interior exhibit many Gothic details.
vision in soft pink Baroque, the Church of St. Casimir is famous
for it's crown-shaped cupola which can be seen from all across the
city. Ironically, the church spent 20 years as a museum of atheism
while Lithuania was under Soviet rule.
A few blocks away, the Church of St. Anne is perhaps Vilnius' most
durable house of worship. Virtually unchanged since its unveiling
at the turn of the 16th century, the ornate design is often referred
to as "flamboyant Gothic". The building flaunts pointed-arch
windows, slender pinnacled towers, and 33 varieties of decorative
Local legend claims that when Napoleon first laid eyes on St. Anne's,
he wanted to place it in his palm and bring it back to Paris. In
truth, Bonaparte and his French Calvary made use of the building
when they marched into town in 1812, en route to a defeat in Moscow.
It's a jaw-dropping experience to walk among the architectural wonders
of Vilnius. When I stepped into the Church of St. Peter and St.
Paul, however, my jaw dropped to an unfathomable depth. The church
is a dream in Baroque.
the church exterior is unremarkable, the interior is graced with
more than 2,000 white stucco statues and relief works. Biblical,
mythical and historic figures leap from the walls: a resurrected
Jesus Christ, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, St. Paul, cherubs,
demons, mythical animals, and everyday people caught between pain
The arched ceiling is no less elaborate. Delicate frescos appear
to be held in place by the outstretched hands of floating children.
They in turn are surrounded by hundreds of protruding faces. One
such face, a representation of God, looms from the ridge of the
cupola. From this perspective the statues and reliefs are arranged
in complex groupings.
All of the city's architectural treasures are not of a religious
nature, however. Vilnius University, the Presidential Palace, Town
Hall, and numerous estates and single family homes are awe-inspiring
examples of endurance and design.
Although Grand Duke Gediminas may have failed in his prophetic quest
to build an unconquerable city, he managed to lay the groundwork
for what has become an architectural "iron wolf" of Eastern
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