The Black Madonna of Vilnius

Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn is one of the most beautiful and evocative of Europe’s Black Madonnas. She has presided over the city of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, for nearly four hundred years and showers her gifts of compassion and mercy from her lofty position on top of the Gate of Dawn on all those who enter and leave. Her story is one of heartbreak and loss, prejudice and politics, love and hope, all intricately bonded with the remarkable history of the city and its’ people. She also sits at the heart of the European landmass, very near to geographical centre of Europe (latitude 54 54 and longitude 25 19), so she is in a sense an omphalos, a microcosm in the macrocosm of Europe’s more recent history.

Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (author’s photo)

Her origins are shrouded in mystery. She probably emerged around 1630, her painting commissioned by the government of the time, though other legends say that she was brought from the Crimea as war booty. This story hints at Lithuania’s great past when her boundaries stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea under the days of the Grand Duchy, but by the seventeenth century these days were no more. In any event, after her first appearance she was placed in the Gates of Dawn, part of the city walls, built to protect from invaders. She began to bestow miracles with immediate effect, restoring to health a two-year-old boy who had fallen from a second floor window.

The Black Madonna of Vilnius (photo credit Diana Eder)

By now Lithuania had been swallowed in a union with Poland and Vilnius no longer exercised any real political power. The people would have visited Our Lady to tell her of their woes and reflect on a glorious past long since vanished. But worse was to come. In 1654 the Russians arrived and during the Battle of Vilnius, the city was looted and pillaged, many people taken prisoner and murdered. Carmelite monks were given the task of maintaining the city gates and inherited Our Lady as part of the job.   They built her a small wooden chapel which became her home until it burnt down at the beginning of the eighteenth century when the current brick chapel was built. It was during this time that she was to gain her stunning coat of gilded silver, richly decorated with roses, tulips and carnations, and lending her a more Orthodox look.

For the next two centuries Vilnius was to remain under Russian rule, apart from a brief interlude in 1702 when the Swedish army captured the city as part of the Great Northern Wars. Our Lady once again came to the fore. Four Swedish soldiers, who had the impudence to mock and even shoot at her, were killed when the iron gates of the city fell on them. Then, the very next day, the Lithuanian army launched a counter attack against the Swedes, right next to the Gate, and were rewarded with victory.

Over time, Lithuania’s other neighbour – the Prussians – emerged as a military power and she found herself surrounded by aggressive and expansionist neighbours who mercilessly carved her up in the partition of Poland. Repression increased; the Russians clamped down on any rebellion and in 1840 in a bid to try and stamp out any remnants of national pride, the Russian language was made compulsory. The city walls were demolished as a in an act of dominance, but miraculously the Gates of Dawn survived and remains to this day the only surviving part of the defensive walls.

Woman of the Apocalypse

Throughout the trials and tribulations of occupation, war and repression, the faithful continued to pray to Our Lady for her benevolent intervention and brought her votive offerings of cured limbs, eyes, and many, many hearts. It was during this time that she inherited her splendid silver crescent moon, earning herself the title of Queen of Heaven. With her golden crown and halo, the twelve stars around her head and the moon beneath her feet, she became associated with the Woman of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation.

Jewish Quarter, Vilnius (author’s photo)

By the end of the nineteenth century, Vilnius had become a major Jewish centre. Forced to live within the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, many Jews were attracted to Vilnius with its railway network and thriving business centre and by 1870 they comprised half of the population of the city. The Jewish quarter was a bustling place where furriers, opticians and goldsmiths plied their crafts, and moves were afoot to build a large synagogue to facilitate their worship. But anti-semitism also thrived and organised pogroms and acts of extreme violence against the Jews became more frequent on the streets around the Gates of Dawn. Many tried to emigrate, but those that remained were to face the then unimaginable horrors of the twentieth century.

After the outbreak of the First World War, Vilnius was occupied by the Germans, then in 1918 with both the fall of the Tsarist Empire and the collapse of the German Empire, the city finally and jubilantly declared independence. Sadly, this was not to last. The city was annexed in 1920 by the Poles, and for the next 19 years Vilnius became part of Poland, cut off from the rest of Lithuania and ruled over once again by outsiders. The people turned again to Our Lady in their hour of need and in 1927 she was crowned formally as the Mother of Mercy.

The twentieth century was to wreck worldwide havoc with its mass murder, unimaginable scale warfare, disease and genocide and Vilnius played out its role as microcosm to the macrocosm of European/world politics. One of Lithuania’s most famous daughters, the renowned archaeologist and thinker Marija Gimbutas lived during these times. She was born in Vilnius in 1921 to doctors, who had founded the first Lithuanian hospital and were themselves strongly involved with the folk history and culture. The young Marija would have almost certainly visited Our Lady, though there are no formal written records of this.

Under Polish rule, the family moved in 1931 to Kaunas but Marija was to study in both Vilnius and Kaunas where she embarked on her studies of the Ancient Balts and their Indo-European ancestry, a theory for which she is now famed. Vilnius was not to return to Lithuanian control until World War Two, when the Russians, this time in the guise of the Communist Soviets, took control of the whole country including the former capital. But fortune proved once again fickle, and with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Lithuania now found herself ruled by an even more aggressive master.

Paneriai Forest Memorial (author’s photo)

Almost immediately the next tragic stage in Vilnius’ history began – the mass murder of its vast Jewish population. Already segregated in ghettos near the Gates of Dawn, the Jews were systematically liquidated. The first stage was transport to the forest of Paneriai just outside Vilnius where around 100,000 people were shot and buried in mass pits over the course of the war. In 1941 over a three-month period, half of the Jews of Vilnius had been massacred at this site alone. The deportations must have occurred within sight of Our Lady,  but sadly no intercession was forthcoming on this occasion.

Nuclear silo, Zemajitija National Park (author’s photo)

By the end of 1944, Europe was on her knees and the Reich that was to last a thousand years came crashing down. Out of the ashes of chaos, a new threat was emerging and in 1945 Vilnius came come back under Soviet control once again. Regarded as the worst of all foes by some, Gimbutas chose to flee the Soviets and sought haven in the ruins that was Germany with her manuscripts under one arm and her baby under another. The people of Vilnius now faced life under the Stalin and thousands of Lithuanians were murdered, imprisoned or deported under his rule of political terror. Many would have turned to Our Lady for comfort and mercy and to feel her boundless compassion during the spiritual sterility of the Cold War, when tension was always high between East and West. Unbeknown to anyone, four nuclear warheads pointing at European capitals were stationed in the forests of Lithuania after the stand-off of the Cuban missile crisis and remained perilously positioned there for over a decade.

Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (author’s photo)

Finally, in 1989 the opportunity to shake off Soviet repression presented itself and the Lithuanians were in the vanguard. Under the Glasnost of Gorbachev, the Warsaw pact countries began to open their borders and align themselves to democracy. The people of the Baltic States, who actually comprised part of the Soviet Union at the time, formed a Chain of Freedom of over two million people from Tallinn to Vilnius. Seven months later, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet Republics to declare independence. In 1990, for the first time since the thirteenth century, Lithuania became an independent country and the smile of Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn seemed to become more serene. She can now be visited by anyone at most hours of the day and night, always available with her boundless compassion, fully at home in her role as Queen of Hearts and the Lady with the Moon at her feet and stars in her hair.

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