The Architecture of St. George the Martyr Church

The interior of the church today from the organ chorus. Photo A. Švedas

The church of St. George has remained gothic despite all reconstructions after wars and conflagrations. This shrine of late gothic style is one of the five churches built between 1495 and 1510 which belong to the national heritage of genuine Lithuanian architecture. According to researchers D. Kaczmarzykas and Vladas Drėma, there is such a clear relation of architectural features, artistic expression and identical motifs in the St. Ann and the Bernardine churches in Vilnius and the church of St. George in Kaunas that they can confidently be attributed to the same master – the Vilnius church architect Michael Enkinger.  Famous already in his time for the originality of his work, admired by his contemporaries, Michael Enkinger’s sacred buildings are considered outstanding to this day.

St. George church of Kaunas is a monumental building (the length of the hall is 36,5 m, that of the presbytery 20,8 m), impressive for its vertical proportions and rhythmic composition. Its façades are intersected by lancet windows and graceful slim buttresses. The latter are identical to the buttresses of Vilnius Bernardine church. They comprise four segments, tapering towards their top while the cross-section of their profile remains the same. The buttresses of the presbytery are particularly distinctive. They hardly touch the façade and in fact do not support the wall, but rather, support the arches above the windows and the cornice of the roof. The window frames of the presbytery are different from those of the façade – they are composed of bricks of various profiles. On the east side the presbytery takes the shape of a three-sided apse. In the middle of the west façade of the church was once the main entrance – an impressive lancet-arched portal with profiled framework. This façade is crowned by a plastered fronton of trianglular shape, punctuated by rectangular recesses. It was erected after the conflagration 1668, since an early 17th century Kaunas panorma engraved by Tomas Makovskis depicts this fronton with a stepped gable. The vivid description of the conflagration reports that ‚since it was thatched the fire devastated everything’, but it also says that the church promptly received help and ‚the shrine was covered from above, the the ridge and the turret, too’. One of the pages of this document shows a drawing of a baroque turret, carefully drawn by quill, coloured with diluted ink and yellowish water-based paint. The present-day turret on the gable of the presbytery is similar to the one shown on the drawing, but not quite the same. Could it be that once there was a second turret?

The ribs of the arches above the capitals are decorated with branches of rue. Photo A. Švedas

St. George is a three-naved hall church with all three naves covered by the same saddle roof. Only the significantly smaller presbytery is separated and crowned by a picturesque baroque turret. The intrinsic church is built from darkish red bricks, with the bricks laid in gothic fashion (alternating lengthwise and across). Re-baked black bricks are used for modest decoration. Most ornaments are rhombuses or crosses. The walls of the church are very thick: 1,3 m in the hall and 1,0 m in the presbytery.

Four pairs of pillars divide the interior of the church into three naves, each of them composed of five travees, arched with semicircular cross vaults. (Travee is the term used for the space between supporting pillars). The high pillars of square cross-section were probably erected after the conflagration of 1624. The new vaults, somewhat lower than the old ones, go back to the same time as do the decorations on the walls of the side naves. The pillars capitals bear ornaments of rue. The side naves are narrower than the central nave. The presbytery is of the same width as the central nave but clearly less high; it is intended for the choir of the Friars and divided from the remaining space of the church by the triumphal arch - a dominant part of the whole interior.

The church of St. George, one of the outstanding monuments of late gothic architecture in Lithuania, has not been restored up to now (2011). The gothic exterior of the church is disfigured by partly bricked-up windows and also by additions of various origin, such as the ill-suited north portal. From the West side, where there are outbuildings, the site is still fenced in with ugly mesh-wire.

Alteration and Development of the Interior of the Church in the Course of History

Roof of the pulpit decorated with open-work carvings. Photo J. Šaparauskas

The church's interior, its decorations and equipment (altars, pulpit and other objects) can be defined by its iconography program. Very little is known about the interior of the Bernardine church in its early gothic history. We can only say with certainty that in 1508 the altar of St. Ann stood at the end of the northern side-nave and has remained there to this day. In 1580 the St. Ann chapel, as the area at the end of the side-nave was known at that time, was restored and decorated with new paintings made possible by donations from Kaunas attorney Usauskis and cohort head Putvinskis. The description of the 1603 conflagration does not tell us much more about the appearance of the interior: ”…the fire devastated everything, except for the sacristy and the presbytery where the vaults as well as the high altar were spared”. The fire also destroyed the altar of the Holy Cross where only the crucifix itself was left – contemporaries considered this a miracle. In the 16th century three confessionals were built along the south wall. The Bernardine Fathers could enter directly from the friary’s interior courtyard, unseen by penitents.

Gradually the church and the friary were rebuilt ’thanks to donations by pious benefactors and the work of the brothers of the friary under the guidance of Guardian Bernardinas Švabas’. From the description of one more conflagration in 1624 we learn that at that time the church had twelve altars. The report on the fire is impressively vivid: “...and later on, like a punishment by God, in the year of the Lord 1624, when the reverend Father Baltramiejas Žukas was Guardian, on Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi, at noon, sparks from the chimney went so wild that the whole friary and church burned down. The fire destroyed most of the town and the church was shattered such that not only the vaults broke down, but even pillars fell from their foundations ... May the Lord avert similar things from us in future ... During this fire all altars burned down, there had been as many as twelve of them. It is assured that the altars of St. Ann, of the Transfiguration, of the Holy Trinity and of the Holy Virgin Mary perished and the elegant organ, too.” Documents confirm that the restoration of the church, slow and protracted, was supported by many philanthropists, such as Melchioras Rusvickis 'who gave a gift for rebuilding the organ … and donated a guilt silver chalice’. Among the benefactors the document mentions such well-known noblemen as Mikalojus Veselovskis, Albertas Stanislovas Radvila, Kristupas Zaviša.

Saint Martyrs of the Bernardines. End of 17th century. Painting on a panel of the pulpit. Photo A. Švedas

Before restoration was completed, the friars were struck by yet another disaster. On 8 August 1655, Kaunas suffered its first occupation by the Russian army which devastated the town and the church. In the Bernardine archives an important and informative document has been preseved, written on 5 August 1668, which draws a clear line in the development of the church of St. George the Martyr. It tells of the destruction “by the pitiful vicious Moscowians” of everything that had been rebuilt (the presbytery, the vaults on one side, four pillars). "The fire devastated, burned and ruined everything, but this happened not only to us, the friary the Society of Jesus was destroyed, too." The description of the conflagration of 29 July 1668 ends like this: "All this has happened and occurred in the name of God for the sake of our greater spiritual improvement." It is obvious that the oldest parts of the interior, Gothic and Renaissance, could not possibly have survived.

Wooden gallery of organ chorus. 1680. Photo A. Švedas

Restoration began in 1669 - 1679 with the chapel intended for the miraculous painting of the Mother of God. This was situated next to the present-day main entrance on the North façade of the church. At about the same time (from 1668 to the beginning of 18th century) eight altars were built as well as a pulpit and an organ loft with galleries. Parts of this high baroque wooden equipment, heavily damaged but not lost, have become the basis of the current church interior. Some of them are unique, particularly an altar of the type termed Solomon’s Throne, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, built in 1703 from donations by Andrius Krišpinas, Voivod of Vitebsk. The carvings of this black painted altar were silver-plated whereas on all the other altars they were gold-plated. On only one altar, that of St. Francis of Assisi at the South end of the rear wall, the retabul was painted in illusionist manner. The pulpit of 1680 is particularly original: the panels of its hexagonal rostrum, the banister and the door are decorated with eleven paintings. The pyramid-shaped pulpit roof with open-work ornamental carvings is crowned by the statue of Jesus Christ the Saviour of the World. Among the most interesting features of the interior are the wooden galleries and turrets of the organ loft, mounted in 1680. This was made possible by donations recieved by Guardian Benediktas Rondomanskis. The lateral turrets of the organ loft are high, narrow ornamental bands of wooden boards with stylized vine carvings. They hang on the pillars which are connected with the organ loft by two wooden galleries decorated with stylized, richly coloured images of flower bouquets, similar to paintings on Lithuanian chests. These subtle paintings of the late 17th century have remained untouched to this day.

Image of St. Apostle Peter. Second quarter of the XVIII century. Al fresco, al secco. Photo A. Švedas

In the middle to late 18th century the church was further restored. In 1739 two new wooden altars were built which have not survived – one dedicated to St. Rose of Lima, the other to St. Didac. Painters in particular were very active at that time: for example, the pious Mrs. Kučinskienė donated 500 gold coins for paintings of the Stations of the Cross on the walls. Even the date is known: “Those Way of the Cross stations were painted around 1741 without any doubt”. Moreover, twenty eight „very perfect“ paintings were made depicting holy martyrs and confessors of the Bernardines. These images of Bernardines hung in the choir of the friars. In the seventh decade the altars of Virgin Birth of the Holy Virgin Mary and Holy Cross were built at the junction of the presbytery and central nave, where fragments remain.

In the course of polychrome research work on the interior of the church, wall paintings have been found of high and late baroque which should be cleaned of later layers and restored. Note the well-preserved colourful images of the apostles Peter and Paul painted on the pilasters in the Western part of the church. Moreover, in the southern part of the presbytery, fragments are left of the coat of arms of the founder of the friary, Stanislovas Sandzivonius, whose portrait was found in the refectory of the friary. Restoration would not only keep his memory alive but also tangibly connect past, present and future. Although archive sources do not contain any data about the artists who worked here, there is reason to believe that these were Bernardine friars who had their workshops here for many years and decorated the church themselves.

(Laima Šinkūnaitė. Kaunas Franciscan (Bernardines) St. George Church. Kaunas 2008.)


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