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The Treasury of Vilnius Cathedral: Memory Maintained over the Centuries

Church treasuries are sets of artistic liturgical paraphernalia and other articles of exceptional value, for the protection of which special premises were installed. Such sets of exclusive liturgical articles were usually collected over the period of time. They included the gifts donated by church founders, donations by various benefactors or the valuable items received by the clergy and bequeathed to their church. The newly appointed bishops were obligated to bequeath a golden chalice to their church. The significance of the church depended to a large extent on how old and rich its treasury was. Furthermore, the treasury reflected the status of the church and witnessed its history. The treasure could be regarded as a certain financial investment, which often helped solve economic problems of the church in question. It is only natural that such treasuries were vigilantly guarded and augmented. It took time for the artistic and historical significance of such treasuries to be perceived as an unquestionable value. At the beginning, a practical function of such artefacts and their material value was mostly valued, therefore worn out, broken or simply outdated pieces of artistic work were often processed into new items, in line with the taste and needs of the new era.

Due to the fact that the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not conducive to the fate of treasuries, few sets of exceptionally old and valuable sets have survived.

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A collection witnessing the baptism of Lithuania

The treasury of the Vilnius Cathedral was by far the oldest and most numerous. The treasuries guarded in other churches of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, even though they comprised exceptionally luxurious and exclusive artistic pieces, could hardly compete with it.

The origins of the Cathedral treasury can be traced back to the 14th century, as the collection was started shortly after Lithuania’s Baptism and the completion of the first cathedral. The history of the treasury, however, reflects the entire existence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and even goes beyond it.

The Cathedral treasury consists of liturgical vessels made of precious metals, monstrances, reliquaries and crosses adorned with jewels, expensive ecclesiastical clothing, bishops’ insignias, picture ornaments and crowns. This set was preserved due to the concern of the Vilnius Cathedral Chapter. The most valuable treasury items were kept in special secret facilities, locked in special chests and used only during most festive religious celebrations. Naturally, certain losses could not be avoided. Part of the earliest liturgical accessories were lost as early as the 15th-16th centuries, apparently during the fires raging at that time. The only relic reminding us of Władysław II Jagiełło’s name is a small stacked Gothic altar made of ivory, depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. Even though redone several times, St. Stanislaus arm reliquary has also survived. It is believed to have been donated by the Cracow Cathedral Chapter shortly after the establishment of the Vilnius diocese. And yet, the treasury trove is the cross-shaped St. Eustachian reliquary, donated by the Vilnius palatine, the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Albertas Goštautas and the monstrance donated by the nobleman to St. Michael’s church in Geranainiai, which found its way into the Cathedral in 1698. Donators of liturgical vessels and other religious items are often testified by the coats-of-arms and inscriptions imprinted on the pieces of art. Such imprints allow us to make assumptions that expensive gifts were once donated to the Vilnius Cathedral by both the clergy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the nobles, the Radziwiłł, Sapieha and Pac among them.

In the turmoil of wars and hardships

Beyond doubt, one of the most complicated periods in the history of the Cathedral treasury was the war with Moscow, raging in the mid-17th century. When the Muscovite troops invaded the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1654, the Vilnius Cathedral Chapter was no longer able to ensure the security of numerous valuable items kept in the Cathedral and St. Casimir’s Chapel. In the end, the Chapter took a drastic decision to remove the pearls and jewels from the splendid and expensive liturgical vestments, embroidered and interwoven with rich gold and silver yarns, with sequins and precious stones. The vestments were then burnt, in order to obtain the molten threads of precious metals and transport them together with other jewels. In 1655, just prior to the pending occupation of Vilnius, the valuables kept in the Cathedral were divided into two parts and removed from Vilnius. The valuables which could not be transported were hidden in the Cathedral cellars or buried in the ground. One part of the valuables, including the most ancient and precious items, was taken by boat to Königsberg. Unfortunately, this was the part of the treasury which was taken over and plundered by the enemy troops. The other part of the treasury together with the relics of St. Casimir was at first hidden in Samogitia, to be transported at a later time to the estate of Duke Sapieha Ruzhany (currently Belarus). At the end of the war, it was moved to Poland to be guarded in the fortified Pauline monastery of Częstochowa.

Part of the ecclesiastical silver was sacrificed for the needs of the state and those of national defence, yet another part disappeared during all the turmoil of transportation and efforts undertaken to hide the treasury.

Even though Vilnius was liberated at the beginning of 1661, the preserved part of the treasury was returned to the Cathedral only in 1667. The renewal of the war-ravaged church and restoration of the collection of liturgical vessels and other religious items was largely made possible due to the contribution of the Bishops of Vilnius, Bishop Mikołaj Stefan Pac standing out as the most generous. He donated to the church a golden chalice with a paten (a sauce-like dish), other liturgical vessels and expensive liturgical vestments. Part of these pieces of art, adorned with the donator’s coats-of-arms, have survived to the present day and are regarded masterpieces of the Lithuanian Baroque art.

The war of the mid-17th century was disastrous to the treasury but these were not the last losses of the treasury collection. Once again, a significant part of the treasury was sacrificed to the motherland at the end of the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1794, during the rebellion of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, many ancient valuables or their parts kept in the Cathedral treasury and the treasuries of other churches were given over to the rebels. It should be noted, however, that in the 19th century, the treasuries stored in some of the closed churches were transferred to the Cathedral. Therefore the treasury today at least partly reflects the artistic level and beauty not merely of the Cathedral but also of the entire Christian cultural heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In 1939, perhaps the most valuable part of the still surviving treasury (works of goldsmiths) was bricked up in the Cathedral walls, to be uncovered only in 1985. From 2009 onwards, they have been displayed in the Museum of Church Heritage in Vilnius. 

Rūta Janonienė