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February 11, 2008
From journal Vilnius' Turbulent Past and Bright Future
by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
January 4, 2005
The neoclassical structure, designed by Laurynas Gucevicius between 1783 and 1801, gives no hint of the larger Gothic cathedral that Grand Duke Vytautas ordered built on the site. The Belfry that stands independently in front of the cathedral was actually originally part of the Lower Castle, but was converted to its present use in the 1520s when a pair of octagonal tiers were added to its top. The curious cupola that jars with the otherwise harmonious design of the cathedral itself represents Gucevicius’ attempt to incorporate the Chapel of St. Casimir, the only remnant of the cathedral’s baroque incarnation.
The cathedral’s airy interior is the most attractive in the Baltic, and one of the most delightful anywhere in Europe. With the except of the aforementioned Chapel of St. Casimir, it echoes the design of the exterior, with the relatively plain column-lined nave resembling a classical temple, thereby directing viewers attention to the magnificent high altar, shaped like the front of such a temple itself. The paintings hung on the columns are a complete series depicting the Apostles by Franciszek Smuglewicz (1745-1807). The Polish-born Smuglewicz was the foremost practitioner of neoclassical painting in Lithuania and also executed The Martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, which hangs over the high altar.
The cathedral’s highlight, however, is the exquisitely decorated Chapel of St. Casimir, which was built between 1622 and 1636 by Constantino Tencalla to provide a resting place for the remains of the eponymous patron saint of Lithuania, who died in 1484. The chapel’s dominant feature is the lavish black, white, and colored marble paneling, which was executed over the course of a century, primarily by Italian artisans. Tencalla’s countrymen Hiacinto Campana and Michelangelo Palloni painted the ceiling and side frescoes respectively, while Pietro Peretti exceuted the ornate stucco backdrop to the silver shrine to St. Casimir. The eight small niche statues, which depict Lithuanian Grand Dukes, were added in the 18th century, as was the goblet-shaped moveable pulpit.
The cathedral is open daily to visitors and for evening mass at 6 and 7pm, with services held almost hourly on Sunday. Visitors can supposedly sometimes visit the vault, which holds some of the remains of the Perkunas Temple, as well as royal coffins and fragments from the previous churches on the same site. Unfortunately, my experience was that this was not possible, but you may wish to enquire nonetheless.
From journal Vilnius I: A Historical Overview