Vilnius Stories and Tips

Old Town Vilnius' Three Finest Churches

St. Anne's Church Photo, Vilnius, Lithuania

While it’s hard to find an uninteresting building in Vilnius’ sprawling Baroque Old Town, if you only have limited time in the city, your visit will be incomparably richer if you visit these three churches. All are open to the public on Mondays, when the city’s museums are closed.

St. Anne’s Church
According to legend, when the Emperor Napoleon stopped in Vilnius at the beginning of his ill-fated attempt to invade Russia, he was so enamored of this magnificent brick Gothic church that he expressed the desire to bring it back with him to France in the palm of his hand. Another, perhaps more credible version of the same story holds that he considered ordering it dismantled brick by brick so that it could be reassembled on French soil, not unreasonable given the Emperor’s fondness for spiriting away artistic (if not architectural) treasures from lands he conquered.

Fittingly, the history of the church’s construction itself is shrouded in mystery, although this has only served to enhance its status as the most celebrated work of architecture in the entire country. Twice as high as it is broad and perfectly symmetrical, it utilizes thirty-three different shapes of brick. Historians have been unable to agree when its spectacular brick Gothic façade was constructed, let alone by whom. It certainly served some purpose as a part of a larger brick Bernardine Friary, and thus must have been built no earlier than 1469 when the order (an offshoot of the Franciscans) arrived in Vilnius, although it was dwarfed in size (and probably importance) by the adjacent Church of SS Francis and Bernardino. Consequently, its interior is relatively modest.

Church of St. Casimir
By contrast, the Jesuit church dedicated to St. Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint, is modest neither inside nor outside. Its dome, topped by a lantern which is in turn topped by a crown added in 1942 to commemorate St. Casimir’s royal lineage, is visible from every point along the Old Town’s main throughfare, on which it is located. Lithuania’s Soviet occupiers duly noted its prominent position and sought to strike at Lithuanian nationalism and Catholicism alike by converting it into a "Museum of Atheism" between 1966 and 1988. By contrast, Vilnius’ Cathedral was pressed into service as a secular art gallery!

Prior to Soviet rule, the church projected the power of the Jesuit order, which dominated Vilnius’ spiritual and intellectual life during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Construction began in 1604, a mere two years after St. Casimir’s canonization, under the auspices of the local architect Jan Prochowicz. It was most likely designed, however, by the Italian Giovanni Maria Bernardoni, who designed several other Jesuit churches in Eastern Europe that were modeled on the order’s mother church of Il Gesu in Rome. The twin towers, however, which differ from the originals, are clearly Prochowicz’ touch. In any case, it was the first baroque building of any kind to be constructed in Vilnius, and while the Jesuits’ intellectual imprimatur may have waned, their architectural influence remains evident, as this is the Old Town’s dominant architectural style.

Church of the Holy Spirit
Before stepping inside, the only hint a visitor has that the baroque Church of the Holy Spirit, designed in 1749 by Jan Kryzysztof Glaubitz, is consecrated as an Orthodox place of worship is the Cyrillic inscription on the archway that leads to its courtyard. This has much to do with the identity of its architect, the acknowledged master of the so-called "Vilnius Baroque" style who is best known for the Jesuit St. John’s Church (inside Vilnius University), which was completed in the same year. Glaubitz, who spent nearly three decades designing churches for the Jesuit order, wasn’t overly consumed by sectarian matters, as he was an Evangelical Lutheran himself!

The presence of the church in the heart of Vilnius’ Old Town is a commendation to the spirit of tolerance under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which allowed all three faiths (and Glaubitz himself) to prosper. It owes its position as Lithuania’s most important Orthodox church, however, to the presence of the preserved remains of a trio of victims of intolerance: SS Anthony, Ivan, and Estachius. The three men, servants at the court of the pagan Grade Duke Algirdas, were martyred in 1347 when the latter suddenly reversed his policy of tolerating Christians. The gigantic green iconostasis, which is only marginally more tasteful than the martyrs’ shriveled feet poking out from the shroud below it, is thought to have been designed by Glaubitz himself. Its incorporation of Baroque paintings alongside traditional Orthodox icons is offered as support for this supposition.

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