by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
January 4, 2005
The university’s walls contain a dozen courtyards, whose muddle of architectural styles reflect its distinguished essence though turbulent history. Established as a center to inculcate Counter-Reformation dogma in Lithuania’s priests and nobility (many of the latter of having to the Lutheran faith), the university also became an important center for scientific inquiry. Under Russian rule it also became a hotbed for Lithuanian nationalist thought, leading to its closure in 1832 in the wake of the rebellion the previous year. The university was reopened when Lithuania regained its independence in 1919, but was forced to spout Marxist-Leninist dogma under Soviet occupation. With independence it has recovered its role as the country’s premier university.
While its buildings contain innumerable artistic treasures, only the University Church dedicated to the two Saint Johns is readily accessible to the public. While its hulking presence is visible from Pilies gatve, the Old Town’s main street, entrance is only possible through the Great Courtyard within the university’s walls. The original church dates to the conversion of Grand Duke Jogaila (Ladislaus) to Christianity, although its present form dates largely to the 1738-1749 renovation under the auspices of Jan Krysztof Glaubitz. This accounts for the startling distinction between its dull exterior and sumptuous interior.
The church’s decorations are the most ornate to be found anywhere in Vilnius, making ample use of plasterwork, precious metals, and paintings alike. The 10 interconnected altars that together compose the high altar are also noteworthy. Although a few glass cases containing old scientific tracts hint at the church’s erstwhile role as the university’s Science Museum, a designation that began under Soviet rule, they are dwarfed by monuments to Polish and Lithuanian patriots. The most memorable honors Adam Mickiewicz, the author of Poland’s national epic Pan Tadeusz, who was born near Vilnius and attended the university until he was expelled in 1824 for anti-Russian activities.
The University Church is open from 10am to 5pm daily, and the university itself supposedly share these opening hours, though in practice you may enter as long as the gate on Universiteto gatve is open. The gift shop is open during business hours and located off the Great Courtyard to the left of the University Church.
From journal Vilnius I: A Historical Overview