The Cathedral Square branches into one of the most beautiful and central streets of the city – Pilies Street. It is one of the oldest streets in the city, rich with interesting ancient buildings. Today, house number twenty-six in Pilies Street is the House of Signatories. It is a historical and architectural monument, where on February 16th, 1918, the Act of Independence of Lithuania was signed. The present Pilies Street is divided into two sections: from the Saint Pararascevia Orthodox Church the street is called Didžioji Street. In earlier times, Pilies Street was a single street linking the Cathedral and the Town Hall.
The Magdeburg Rights were granted to Vilnius by Jagiello (Lithuanian: Jogaila), Grand Duke of Lithuania and king of Poland, in 1387. The initial, gothic-style Town Hall in Vilnius was mentioned for the first time in 1432. It was standing on the same spot where its successor is now. The Town Hall Square contained market places, measures, treasure house, chancellery, archives, underground prison. It was the place, where the city authorities and merchants would gather. The Town Hall acquired its present appearance in the end of 18th century after the reconstruction designed by Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius, designer of the reconstructed Vilnius Cathedral. That’s why these two Classical-style buildings are well distinguished in the surrounding of various styles. When
the right of self-rule was cancelled, the Small Theatre (Lithuanian: Mažasis teatras) was opened in the Town Hall in 1811 and a standing theatre was functioning from 1845 to 1922.
The authentic interior of the Town Hall was badly damaged in order to adapt the building for theatre’s purposes. In 1944-1995, the Town Hall housed the Lithuanian Art Museum. Today, representative events and exhibitions are held in the Town Hall.
The Town Hall Square has been recently reconstructed and now overlooks the beautiful baroque facade of Si Casimir Church, which is one of the earliest buildings in the baroque style in Vilnius. There are very many baroque structures in Vilnius, and the city can be reasonably proud of them. The building of the St. Casimir Church (Lithuanian: Šv. Kazimiero bažnyčia) and a monastery was started in 1604, after Casimir was declared a saint, by active Jesuits and with the support of the Grand Chancellor of Lithuania Sapieha. The Church of Gesu (II Gesu) in Rome was chosen as an architectural analogue for the St. Casimir Church. The crown of the dome was built during later reconstructions of the church. The church was taken away from the Catholics; it was turned to an Orthodox church in 1831-1917 and even adapted for the purposes of Museum of Atheism in 1961-1989. Today services are said in the church again and Jesuits are settled nearby.
The territory of Vilnius castles was well fortified from olden times in order to defend the residents of the city from frequent enemies’ attacks. The idea of defensive fortifications and defensive wall of Vilnius city emerged at the end of the 15th century – early 16th century, when Russia started getting stronger and endangering Lithuania. In 1503-1522, a brick wall of the city was built with the efforts of all Vilnius residents.
On the extant part of the defensive city wall of Vilnius there is the small Chapel of the Gate of Dawn arranged above the Gate of Dawn (Lithuanian: Aušros vartai, also known as the Medininkai Gate). Today it is the most famous and beloved shrine of Catholics, containing a renowned miraculous painting of the Mother of God. The attic of the city gate is decorated with two relief-work griffins, holding the shield with the coat-of-arms.
In Middle Ages, it was a usual thing to place the pictures of saints on city gates. They were supposed to ensure peace for city residents and protect them from enemies. The Carmelite monks, who established themselves nearby the Gate of Dawn, began to take care of this renowned miraculous painting of the Mother of God in 1626. For this purpose, in 1671 they built the initial chapel, which was destroyed in fire in 1712-1715 and the present renaissance chapel was built.
The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, was painted by an unknown artist on oak boards in the 17th century, following the 16th century Netherlandish style of wood engraving. The painting is believed to have had its twin equivalent, painting of Jesus Christ, facing outwards the City Wall. The painting of the Mother of God was repainted many times; the hands of the Mother of God were repainted even eight times. The painting is 200×162 cm in size. It is one of five crowned miraculous pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lithuania. But it is the only one, where Mary is depicted without a Baby Jesus. In 1702, during the battle trying to relieve the city from Swedes, a bullet was put through the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In later years, the painting was covered with gilded silver garment decorated with engraved flowers. In 1927, Pope Pius XI allowed the painting to be solemnly crowned and Madonna of the Gates of Dawn was conferred the golden crowns of the pope. After 1864, Latin inscription “Mater Misericordiae, sun Tuum Praesidium confugimus” (Mother of Mercy, we pray for your protection) appeared on the facade of the chapel. Pope John Paul II visited the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn in 1993, during his visit to Lithuania.
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