Vilnius was always open to different cultures, customs, and nations. The churches of the capital Vilnius, which has an abundance of them, marvellously reflect this fact. As in every medieval city, the churches and monasteries have created the city’s unique character while the church towers have created its mood. The decorative churches façades, domes, towers, and belfries with their wavy lines harmoniously flow into the hilly rhythm of the surroundings and adorn the Vilnius skyline.
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Standing at the foot of Gediminas hill, Vilnius Cathedral is Lithuania’s spiritual and political centre. It is thought that in pagan times this was the location of an altar, an eternal fire, or even a temple to Perkūnas. King Mindaugas built the original cathedral in 1251 after his conversion to Christianity. In 1387, on the occasion of the official conversion of the whole of Lithuania to Christianity, a gothic style cathedral was built. The coronation ceremonies of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania from Vytautas to Žygimantas Augustas took place there. Due to fires, wars, and unstable ground, the Cathedral was rebuilt more than once. As a result, gothic, renaissance, and baroque styles are reflected in its architectural history.
The most beautiful part of the Cathedral, the baroque chapel of St Casimir, was built in 1623–1636 at the initiative of King Sigismundus Vasa. The chapel contains a unique 18th century goblet-shaped pulpit and 18th century silver-plated statues of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and Kings of Poland. After the last reconstruction was performed according to the design of Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius, the church acquired the strict quadrangular shape favoured by French classicism. The Cathedral was the most monumental building with the purest classical style in the entire territory of the Polish-Lithuanian state (Rzeczpospolita). Now, a tall portico with 6 Doric columns and sculptures by the Italian sculptor, T. Righi, which stand in the niches, decorate the main fasade of the Cathedral. The tympanum portrays the sacrifice of Noah.
The interior of the Cathedral is also very rich: there are more than 40 artworks from the 16th–19th centuries inside, both frescoes and small and large pictures. A museum, with an exposition reflecting the history of the building from the pagan temple until the present day, is located in the Cathedral’s catacombs. During the restoration of the Cathedral, the very first floor, laid in the days of Mindaugas, was found in addition to the remains of the cathedral built in 1387, the altars of a pagan temple, and other archaeological finds. A fresco dated to the end of the 14th century, the oldest known fresco in Lithuania, was found on the wall of one of the underground chapels.
The Cathedral’s bell tower (57 m or 187 ft) was built atop a Lower Castle defensive tower. Its oldest underground square section was even built in the 13th century on the bottom of the old riverbed. The bell tower acquired its present appearance after the 1801 reconstruction.
Aušros Vartai (The Gates of Dawn)
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The Gates of Dawn are one of the symbols of the city of Vilnius. These gates are a famous Catholic shrine not only in the whole of Lithuania but also abroad. Built on the road to the city of Medininkai and originally called the Medininkai gates, they were one of the original five gates of Vilnius built together with the city wall. The three-tiered gates stand in the southern part of the Old Town, open onto M. Daukša Street, and are connected to a surviving section of the defensive wall.
The building’s unique renaissance attic is decorated with a décor characteristic of that style. The main façade of the gates is adorned with gryphons bearing the arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Beside it to the east stands part of the city wall. This is the longest section of all those remaining.
The picture of the Mother of Mercy of the Gates of Dawn is well known among Catholics worldwide. The image of the Virgin Mary, covered with gold by an unknown 17th century goldsmith, has the features of both the gothic style and icon painting. Painted with tempera on oak boards, it was later re-painted with oil paints.
Evangelican Lutheran Church
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The first Evangelical church (Kirche) in this location was built in 1555 at the initiative of the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Mikalojus Radvila Juodasis. The church is small and modest with an ornate high altar created by the architect, J.K. Glaubitz. Atop the 19th century tower is a high tin-plated spire. The height of the bell tower is 30 m (91 ft).
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The Moorish-style Karaim temple was built in 1922–1923 and consecrated in 1922–1923. During the Soviet period, it was closed and made into a warehouse. Now the Kenessa is once again serving the faithful. The Karaims are a small religious and national community, which was invited to Lithuania from Crimea by Vytautas, Grand Duke of Lithuania. ‘Karaim’ means ‘I am reading (the bible)’.
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The Synagogue is the only remaining one of the one hundred and five synagogues and Jewish temples in Vilnius. It was built in the Moorish style in 1903. The Jewish temple has a nice copula and the tablets of Moses are portrayed on the tympanum. The façade bears the inscription in Hebrew: ‘A house of prayer is a holy place for all peoples’. Inside is a separate gallery set aside for women and a choir loft, which also has a small organ.
Russian Orthodox Church of Holy Mother of God
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This Orthodox cathedral stands on the left bank of the Vilnelė. It is thought that Julijona, the wife of Algirdas and the mother of Jogaila, established this church in the 14th century and was buried in it. In 1511–1522, Duke K. Ostrogskis rebuilt the almost-ruined old church. The new church was rebuilt in the gothic Byzantine style. In 1609, the church was passed to the control of the Uniates. Finally in 1808, the neglected church was sold to Vilnius University. An anatomy and veterinary museum as well as auditoriums and a library were established in the church. During 1864–1868 at the initiative of General Governor N. Muravyov, the cathedral was rebuilt, acquired its present appearance, and again became an Orthodox church. The present façades and domes imitate Georgian medieval architecture. The interior was recreated during the reconstruction. It is harmonious and has an especially ornate five-tiered iconostas studded with pictures.
Russian Orthodox Church of the Holly Spirit
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The church and the Orthodox monastery were built in this location by the brotherhood of the Holy Trinity in 1567. The brick church was erected in 1638 and reconstructed and decorated in the rococo style by the architect, J.K. Glaubitz, during 1749–1753. The simple massive bell tower adds to the calm and symmetric exterior of the church with its two early baroque towers and high (49 m or 161 ft) dome. Inside the building, there is a great deal of ornate décor from the 18th century. The wooden baroque iconostas, which was created in the late baroque style by J.K. Glaubitz, is especially valuable. The church's vaulting is adorned with a big copula and the fasade by two small towers. In 1826–1851, an underground crypt was installed under the iconostas for the burial of the remains of Saints Jonas, Eustchijus, and Antanas, who were the courtiers of Algirdas. At the initiative of Muravyov, the church was reconstructed: the dome was rebuilt and the fasade changed significantly. It has reached our time almost unchanged from that date; after entering through the neo-Byzantine style gates, every visitor is greeted by the church, monastery, and nunnery complex.
St Michael’s the Archangel
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This is the only complex of renaissance buildings in Vilnius and it fits splendidly with the gothic St. Anne’s and Bernardine Churches located next to it. The interior of the church is very rich and at the same time very solemn. Its high altar is in the late renaissance style, made from black, red, brown, and dark green marble, and decorated with the white alabaster while the side altars are in the rococo style. The tombstone of Leonas Sapiega and both his wives is located near the marble high altar. This is the biggest memorial structure in Lithuania having the features of both baroque and mannerism. Since 1972 the Museum of Architecture has been operating in the church. The freestanding baroque style bell tower was built at the beginning of the 18th century. On the top of it is an iron weathervane depicting the Michael the Archangel treading on the devil.
St Raphael’s the Archangel
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The Church of St. Raphael the Archangel and the Jesuit monastery stand on the banks of the Neris. This stylish two-tower late baroque structure was built in 1702–1730. In 1773, the church passed from Jesuits to the Piarists and the latter later sold it to the Russian authorities, which established an army barracks and warehouse in it. In 1860, the church was returned to the Catholics again. The interior of the building is interesting: the high altar contains a beautiful picture of the Raphael the Archangel by S. Čechavičius (18th century) in addition to many other valuable pictures. The pews from the beginning of the 18th century in the central nave should also be mentioned.
The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Visitandine Convent
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The Church and convent of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or the Visitandine Church together with the adjacent Missionaries’ Church form an impressive complex on Išganytojas (Saviour) Hill, which is highly visible from various parts of the city. This church is an important late baroque style structure. Its interior is ornate but was badly destroyed during the Soviet occupation. After the World War II, a prison was established there, which has been operating until now.
Church of the Holy Trinity and Basilian Monastery
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Behind the Philharmonic Society's Hall stand the exceptionally graceful, wavy gates of the Basilian monastery, one of the most splendid late baroque structures in Vilnius. They are decorated with a composition celebrating the Holy Trinity. After passing through the arch of 18th century gates, one enters a spacious yard, in the middle of which looms a cube-shaped church having gothic, baroque, and Byzantine elements.
The Basilian monastery was founded on top of Holy Trinity Hill where the Christians, Antanas, Jonas, and Eustakijus, were hanged for converting to the Orthodox faith. In 1347, in memory of them, Julijona, the wife of Algirdas, built a wooden Orthodox church. After the church burned down in 1748, the Basilian monks built a new Orthodox church in the same location, where church has stood until the present day. The church is in the rococo style, its interior divided into three equally high naves topped by semi circular apses. During the restoration of the church, two rococo-style towers were built, the windows enlarged, and a portal introduced.
The monastery’s houses built together with the church were later reconstructed more than once. An Orthodox printing house was also located there. At the beginning of the 19th century, a prison was established in the southern building of the monastery. In the 1st half of the 20th century, a Byelorussian gymnasium was housed here as well as a scientific society and a museum. The Basilian monks are now living in a small part of the premises of the previous monastery and Vilnius Gediminas Technical University also uses a part of the premises.
Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit
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The Church of the Holy Spirit, or the Dominican Church, is one of the most monumental and ornate churches of Vilnius. It is a magnificent mature and late baroque building.
It is thought that a small (probably wooden) church already existed in this location in Gediminas days. Vytautas, in place of the wooden one that burned down, built the Church of the Holy Spirit, which later was enlarged and in 1501 was given by Aleksandras Jogailaitis to the oldest Dominican chapter in Lithuania. (The walls of the church have survived from those times.) During 1753–1770 the Dominicans built a new church and enlarged the monastery.
The church stands with its side facing the street and lacks a clearly visible main façade. The top of its dome reaches 51 m or 167 ft. The exterior of the church contains both mature and late baroque elements. The interior is in the rococo style and is distinguished by playful and fantastic decorations; this is one of the most valuable church interiors in Lithuania. The church has sixteen altars. The massive but dynamic and plastic altars form a harmonic composition, which also includes a pulpit and confessional, are combined into one unit. The choir loft, supported by curved columns, is very interesting. The church’s organ is the only almost entirely original instrument remaining from the 18th century in Lithuania. The three-tiered buildings of the monastery surround an almost square cloister garth, in which in the 18th century stood a pole-shrine to commemorate the victims of the plague. The corridors of the cloister still contain frescos from the 18th century.
Sts Jacob and Phillip’s Church
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The two-tower, baroque Church of Sts Jacob and Phillip and the Dominican monastery are located near Lukiškės Square on the site of a former graveyard. A wooden church was built at this location in 1624 and the present building has survived from the end of the 17th century.
A picture of a high altar with the miraculous Mother of God and the baby Jesus (18th century) adorns the single-nave, cylindrical-vaulted church. 18th century wooden statues of St. Hyacinth and St. Dominic stand in the niches. During the Soviet occupation, the demolition of the church was foreseen; later it was badly neglected. In 1992, it was returned to the believers. The picture of the Merciful Mother of God (the Lukiškės Mother of God), famous since the 17th century for its miracles, was also returned.
The Dominican monastery was built in the 18th century when the history of the monastery hospital and the oldest hospital in Lithuania began. The monks maintained the hospital until 1808, when it became the first secular hospital in the city.
Sts Johns’ Church
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Jogaila began to build Sts. Johns’ Church as the first centre of the Catholicism immediately after Lithuania’s conversion to Christianity in 1387–1426. At first, it was in the gothic style, elements of which style are still evident in its inner space. In 1571, the church was taken over by the Jesuits and it has been a part of the University complex since that time. It was one of the most beautiful churches in Lithuania. This church is one of the witnesses of Lithuania’s famous past: the Grand Dukes of Lithuania Steponas Batoras, Zigmantas III, Vladislovas IV, and Jonas Kazimieras as well as the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, were received in state there.
The architecture of the building is extraordinarily impressive, i.e. the baroque style fasade, which forms a symmetrical composition, and the sharp wavy forms that are reminiscent of a huge organ. The tympanum of the church’s late baroque style rear fasade is also composed of very plastic forms. The Sts. Johns’ church is especially charming on a sunny day. Vilnius has no other building where the play of baroque shadows is so perfect.
A great presbyter altar, a unique composition of ten smaller altars and the only one in Lithuania and the Baltic States, occupies a special place in the church’s interior. This is a masterly baroque 18th century work with the altars situated in an arc on different levels, on which the light falls through the rear windows of the presbytery. All the altars are abundantly adorned with paintings and sculptures.
The bell tower (68 m or 223 ft) of Sts Johns’ Church was built in 1571 and is even higher than the Cathedral’s. It has both baroque and renaissance features. The cross on top of the bell tower was made by local smiths in the second half of the 17th century. At present besides services, the church hosts concerts and small-scale events and also houses a museum.
St Casimir’s Church and the Jesuit Monastery
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The dome of the St Casimir’s Church and the Jogailaitis family crown on top of it are one of the dominating structures in the panorama of the Old Town. This was the very first baroque church in Lithuania, which the Jesuits built during 1604–1618 in memory of Saint Prince Casimir and with the support of the Grand Chancellor of Lithuania, Leonas Sapiega.
St. Casimir’s Church is one of the earliest, classic baroque structures in the city. It was designed after a famous foremost baroque church in Rome. In the middle of the 18th century during the reconstruction of the church, a several-tiered dome with the high lantern surmounted by a crown was built. This is the only such large and impressive dome in the entire lands of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The interior was made extraordinarily ornate during the reconstruction.
In 1812, Napoleon’s army damaged the church. After the uprising of 1830–1831, it was turned into an Orthodox church and unsuccessfully reconstructed. During 1864–1868, the Cathedral of St Michael was installed in it according to the design of the architect, N. Tchiagin. In 1917, St Casimir’s Church was at last returned to the Catholics but was again damaged during the World War II and was closed. In 1961, it was adapted to the needs of a Museum of Atheism. Later the museum was abolished and the church returned to the believers again.
An exceptional feature of the interior is the wonderfully organised space. The church is decorated with three decorative and ornate late baroque style altars, which were created by T. Žebrauskas in 1749–1755. 17th century frescos have survived in the basement. The construction of the monastery dates back to 1604–1615. This had a library and a hospital and many famous Jesuits used to live there. The first Lithuanian gymnasium of Vilnius (1915-1919), later, A. Vienuolis Secondary School, operated within these buildings.
St Catherines’s Church and the Benedictian Monastery
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Benedictine nuns arrived in Vilnius in 1622 and built a wooden church and nunnery, which was burned down by the Russians in 1655. In 1703, a stone church was rebuilt under the name of St. Catharine. However, after acquiring its present appearance after a reconstruction made during 1741–1773 by the architect, J.K. Glaubitz, the church was damaged in 1812 and again during the World War II, but was restored again afterwards.
Now the building is in the baroque style with the rococo-style decorations. The façade is decorated with two beautiful rococo-style towers. The church has a single nave with nine ornate late baroque altars and a pulpit. The rococo-style Chapel of the Providence of God was built at the beginning of the 18th century. The church is currently under restoration. The monastery’s buildings date back to the 16th–19th centuries. They are distinguished by an unusually complicated designs.
The Calvaries Church of the Invention of the Cross (Dominican)
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The Kalvarijos chapels form the Stations of the Cross, which were created in thanksgiving to God for the liberation of the country from the Russians. The founder of the Stations was Bishop Jurgis Belazaras. Work began in 1664. The Church of the Invention of the Cross and 35 wooden chapels for the Cavalries were built. These are the second oldest Lithuanian Stations of the Cross according to their founding dates, and in the past were the most famous. Pilgrims and processions of the believers visited them.
After the wooden chapels burned down, in the 18th century, 19 brick chapels were built in this location. Later 31 chapels were blown up in 1963 at the order of the Soviet authorities. But the people persistently used to mark and take care of the chapel sites and the tradition of visiting them was not interrupted. At present, the Vilnius Stations of the Cross are being restored and, in 2000, seven chapels were consecrated.
The church is in the rococo style with two beautiful towers. The monastery’s mansard roof is of interest. At present, the building reflects the late baroque style: the central nave is decorated with 18th century frescoes and the sacristy is decorated with 18th century relief sculptures. The rococo style pulpit and font are especially worthy of attention.
St Nicolas’ Church
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This is the oldest remaining house of worship in Lithuania with a churchyard fence. It was built in the 14th century. Grand Duke Gediminas invited traders and artisans to Vilnius and granted them many privileges and freedom of religion. After the traders, Franciscan monks also arrived and built their own church.
This gothic red brick building is modest and simple but cosy and harmonious. The church's vault, supported on four octagonal columns, is worthy of attention. The church has three altars. The high altar has a 16th century silver-encrusted picture of St Nicholas. The inner space of the church is low and continuous; only a sharp triumphal arch divides the presbytery.
The sacristy, topped with a belfry, is nestled against the presbytery. The churchyard fence and gates were built at the beginning of the 19th century. Semi circular arched niches divide the redbrick wall on both sides at uniform intervals.
St Nicolas’ Orthodox Church
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St. Nicolas’ Orthodox Church is in the gothic-Byzantine style. It was built in 1514 by the Grand Hetman of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Konstantinas Ostrogiškis.
During 1609–1827, the church belonged to the Uniates, and in 1827; the Orthodox priests took it over. During fires in the 18th century, the old gothic church burned down and in 1845 was restored in the late baroque style. In executing a russification program, in 1865 the church was reworked in the Russian Byzantine style at the direction of Nikolay Muravyov. Nevertheless, the vaults, the façade, and the entire interior retain many gothic style elements.
St Anne’s Church
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St Anne’s Church is one of the most beautiful and famous buildings in Vilnius. It is presumed that the original (wooden) St Anne’s Church was built in the 14th century by Ona, the wife of Vytautas the Great. The first historical reference to St Anne’s Church dates back to 1394.
It is thought that the brick church was built during 1495–1500 through the efforts of the Franciscans. This is a real late gothic masterpiece; of which there are few comparable buildings in the entire world. The church has reached our time almost unchanged and has become one of the symbols of Vilnius.
The church is surrounded by many legends. The most popular story is that Napoleon upon seeing St Anne’s Church, said that he would like to place it in the palm of his hand and move it to Paris. The church, built using thirty-three kinds of bricks, has already stood for five centuries in the lee of the severe Bernardine gothic style, amazing everyone with the courage and ingenuity of the masters who erected it. This amazingly light, harmonious, and playful building is distinguished by the rhythmic composition of its vertical and curved lines: above the portal there are no flat wall surfaces, only pilasters, slim rod squares, three kinds of arches, and elegant spires crowned with metal crosses. According to the art critic, Vladas Drėma, the ancient Lithuanian arms, i. e. the Pillars of Gediminas (Gedimino stulpai) are highlighted in the composition of the façade. The side façades and presbytery, with their high windows and openwork towers are also very complex.
A neo-gothic bell tower (1873) designed by the architect, N. Tchiagin, and built to replace the previous classical one, stands next to the church.
St Parasceve’s Orthodox Church
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St. Parasceve’s (Piatnickaya) Church, according to legend, was built in 1345 on the site of a temple to the pagan god, Ragutis. After it burned down, a brick Orthodox church was rebuilt at the end of the 16th century. In 1611, the church along with the adjacent buildings and almshouse were passed to the Uniates. However, they were bad landlords, not paying the appropriate attention to their property. Only after the occupation of Vilnius in 1655 was the restoration of the building possible.
In 1705 and 1708, Tsar Peter I visited the repaired church and bestowed a special honour on it by making a present of the flags taken from the conquered Swedes. It is also said that Peter I baptised Hannibal, the great grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, here.
During 1794–1864, the church stood closed and almost in ruins. After the uprising in 1863 when russification measures were undertaken, an Orthodox church, based on the design of the architect, N. Tchiagin, and fairly larger than its neo-Byzantine predecessor, arose on this site in 1864.
Sts Peter and Paul’s
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A wooden church, destroyed during the 1655–1661 War with Moscow, stood in this location since the christening of Lithuania. Hetman M.K. Pacas, in memory of the liberation from Russians, built the brick Church of Sts Peter and Paul during 1667–1676. The building seems quite severe and restrained from outside. It is in the form of a Latin cross with the dome and two short towers. The façade is two tiered with columns and a balcony. The church has a unique old picture portraying the plague in Vilnius (1710). This canvas was restored at the beginning of the 19th century.
The fence surrounding the churchyard and four chapels were built in the second half of the 17th century. The square in front of the church is named Jono Pauliaus II aikštė, in memory of the Pope Joan Paul II visit to Vilnius.
The most valuable asset is the church’s interior, in which white predominates. White stucco mouldings: sculptures, relief work, and panels cover all the walls of the church as well as the vault, the dome, and the chapels. The human figures and faces are reckoned at approximately 2000 pieces. The human figures are grouped into separate scenes where parts of the New Testament, the lives of the saints and Lithuanian history are portrayed. The sculptured interior décor has undergone almost no changes since the beginning of its creation and has survived until the present day.
St Francis’ and Bernardine
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St. Francis’ and Bernardine Church is one of the biggest gothic sacral buildings in Lithuania. It is much higher and more archaic than the St Anne’s Church with which it forms an interesting and unique pair.
Previously the church was used as the part of the city’s defensive wall. Loopholes, through which it was possible to defend the territory up to the Lower Castle, are located in its northern façade. After 16th–17th century restorations, to which Vilnius Voivode Jonas Karolis Chodkevičius also contributed, the church acquired renaissance and gothic style elements; the altars, pulpit, organ choir, tombstones, and frescos (created during the 16th–18th centuries) are in the baroque style. All this gives the church cosiness and enlivens the strict graphic forms of the gothic lines.
The gothic presbytery is the oldest part of the church. The stellar and crystal vaults of the northern nave and sacristy are worthy of special attention. The vestibule also has crystal vaults. The frescoes, created at the beginning of the 16th century, are considered to be unique in the world: their composition and manner of presenting the subject are renaissance but their style is still gothic. The church has 14 rococo style altars (3 brick and 11 wooden) decorated with an abundance of beautiful wooden sculptures and possesses the oldest known crucifix in Lithuania, which is of a high artistic value.
St Theresa’s Church and the Discalced Carmelite Cloister
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One of the most perfect early baroque buildings of Vilnius is the graceful and tall St Theresa’s Church. It was built during 1633–1650 at the initiative of Deputy Chancellor Steponas Pacas and at his expense.
The main façade is without towers and divided into two tiers. The second tier is fairly shorter than the first and ends in a steep pediment. The building consists of high and wide central nave and two narrow and low side naves with chapels. In the interior space, which is of reserved proportions, the abundant, even fantastic décor, overflowing with a play of images, is astonishing: columns, plaster decorations, and statues of the saints adorn all the altars. A fresco from the second half of the 18th century was restored in 1927–1929. Scenes from the life of St Theresa are portrayed on the vaults of the central nave while emblems have been painted on the vaults of the side chapels. The pulpit, confessionals, and pews are in the rococo style. The buildings of the cloister are in early baroque style, restrained and modest; arches separate the convivial courtyards.
The Discalced Carmelites of Vilnius brewed beer which was famous throughout the city and made candles as well. The cloister supported lay medical students and took care of the elderly and orphans.
Church of the Assumption and the Missionaries’ Monastery
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On Išganytojas (Saviour) Hill beyond the former city wall near the Subačius Gate, in 1695 the erections of...