The Miraculous Painting of the Holy Virgin Mary

Restored painting of the Franciscans of Holy Virgin Mary Gracious Mother. Beginning of the XVII century. Photo from L. Šinkūnaitė's personal archives

On 25 August 1670 the subguardian of the Bernardine Friary Aleksas Maceina wrote about the most famous picture of St. Mary in Kaunas of his time:

„I myself, unworthy servant of the Mother of God, with all my heartaches and sufferings, with worries both spiritual and physical, and in all my distress, have experienced great mercy and grace, … dedicating myself to the purest and most faithful Virgin Mary in this painting.”

The painting of the Mother of God at the shrine of St. George the Martyr was lost for a long time after the church had been closed by the Soviet rulers in 1950. It returned to the altar only in 2001 – this time to the arch-episcopal cathedral. To reveal the mysterious history of the painting meant investigation of when, where and how it was found and, later on, identified.

The gist of the story goes like this: in 1978 the painting was rediscovered by the priest Algimantas Kajackas. He had begun caring for the works of art of the Holy Trinity church after this shrine was allowed to reopen in 1978. He found that in 1962, after closure of the church, most of its works of art were transferred to the church of St. Anthony of Padua, and there he began his search. However, he could only find the statue of St. Francis of Assisi from the high altar and a withered canvas with an unknown picture of St. Mary, without a frame, lying on the floor in a basement of the church. After the canvas had been cleaned and framed, that painting of St. Mary hung in Kajackas’ room at the Kaunas Seminary for more than a decade.

In 1992 and 1993, doing research work on the interior of the church of St. George, I meticulously studied the archives of the Bernardine Friary, with a special focus on the miraculous painting of the holy Virgin Mary of the church of the friary. It seemed inconceivable that such a painting would have been lost and we persistently searched for it. Priest Kajackas, when asked if he possibly knew of some old-fashioned, unusual and unknown picture of St. Mary that might hang in the theological seminary, turned up with the painting he had found in 1978. Seeing it, I realized at once: it is found! Nevertheless, only further studies of literature sources and iconography, and a thorough scientific examination of the picture itself finally resulted in the establishment of its authenticity.

The history of the painting of the Holy Virgin Mary has been traced from manuscript sources. It is mentioned in the Bernardine Friary archives for the first time in 1669 and – from the beginning of the 19th century until mid 20th century – in the visitation acts and inventory lists of the church of St. George (for the last time in 1939). The first written evidence of this painting is by the above mentioned Aleksas Maceina, dating from 1670:

„That image of the Holy Mother of God is made after the example of the miraculous painting of Czestochova. Who painted it, who donated it to our church and for how long it has been ours, we cannot find out even from very old people. Before the war with Moscow this picture of the Holy Virgin had a special chapel in the middle of the brick wall of the church, on the left side of the entrance from the moat of the castle.”

This means that the chapel, as already mentioned, was in the middle of the North wall where it may have been established at the end of the 16th century.

Before the Russian invasion of 1655 the patron of the Bernardine Friary Jeronimas Krišpinas Kiršenšteinas had saved the painting of the Holy Mother of God and other precious things from the friary by hiding them in the castle of Raudonė. In 1669, after the third conflagration, renovation works began on the chapel of the Holy Virgin Mary, with funds donated by judge Oborskis. The chapel remained in its previous place.

Around 1679, on completion of the renovation works, the picture was returned to the altar. However, in the middle of the 18th century the present-day entrance to the church was built in place of the chapel. It was then that the painting of the Holy Mother of God was transferred from the former chapel to the high altar. It is mentioned as being there not only in the visitation act of the Bernardine Church of 1804, but also in all later lists, ending with the inventory of 1861.

At the end of the 19th century the painting of St. Mary was transferred from the high altar to the more modest altar of St. Ann and placed on the second stage. Due to its size, however, the painting did not fit there, so the canvas was slightly cropped. The list of property of Kaunas theological seminary of 1939 confirms that the painting “adorned with metal sheets”, was still on the second stage of the altar of St. Ann. What remains a mystery is when and how the painting found its way to the basement of the church of St. Anthony of Padua.

After thorough examination and restoration, the painting now presents an authentic appearance: the faces of the Holy Mother of God and Jesus painted in subtle hues of ochre, their crowns decorated with precious stones and pearls, golden aureoles around the heads. The painting is of the early Byzantine Hodegetria iconography type. Mary is depicted standing; her left arm holds Jesus whose right hand blesses while the left holds the Book of Gospels. It is a canonical version of Hodegetria composition.

The painting is distinguished by the richness of St. Mary’s jewellery. The large number of pearls that decorate her robe are particulary astonishing. But such abundance is not accidental. On the one hand, the pearls carry a decorative function, but their symbolic language is more important. In Christian art the shell encasing the pearl is a symbol of the Incarnation (Birth of the Word from the Virgin Mary) and of Salvation (Mt 13, 45-46).

The True Portrait of Saint Francis of Assisi

Jonas Bielinskis. Painting of St. Francis of Assisi. 1705. Photo from L. Šinkūnaitė's personal archives

Early in the 18th century the portrait of St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) decorated an altarpiece designed as an illusion painting. It was at the end of the wall of the Southern aisle of the church.

Late in the 19th century the picture lost its altar, which had been considered modern in its time. A neo-gothic door from the sacristy to the church was built in its place and the altarpiece was not only heavily damaged but even painted over. The portrait was given a new place on the altar beside the first column. It  hung there until 1950, largely ignored. Since 1971 it has been hanging in the Kaunas priests’ seminary and today belongs to the museum of the Kaunas archdiocese.

Since mid 13th century, St. Francis has been depicted in a standing position and in full height, holding the cross in his right hand and a book in his left. He has stigmata on his hands and feet, and is tonsured and haloed. His long robe is girded with a rope. St Francis is barefoot, with a beard and moustache.

In their way the artists – from Cimabue, Giotto and Simone Martini to this day – revered St. Francis’ mystical love of the suffering of Christ. Jonas Bielinskis,who painted the portrait of St. Francis for the Kaunas Friary, follows this tradition.

The portrait is typical of such images and sculptures of Saints, e.g. Lorenzo Bernini’s 1626 statue of St. Bibiana in Rome. St. Francis is painted in this iconographic manner, but there are nuances: his robe is brown and a rosary hangs on the rope. The three knots symbolize the three vows of the Order – poverty, chastity, obedience. St. Francis’ attention is directed to the crucified Christ and shows deep love of His sufferings in silent prayer and devotion. This is the brightest part of the picture. Only the little angel who supports the heavy book in the hand of the Saint regards the viewer.

The latin words woven into the canvas of the picture are important too. Two angels in blue and red robes hold a ribbon with the inscription: TRES ORDINES HIC ORDINAT – founder of three Orders. On the front page of the book in St. Francis’ hand is a longer inscription: Rule of the Friars Minor: Brother Francis vows obedience and reverence to God, the Pope and the Roman Church. Ch. 1. Parts of the inscription on the heavily damaged cartouche could not be deciphered. In 1992 it was reconstructed by Mindaugas Strockis: True picture of the seraphic brother Francis with the habit of the kind he determined for the Franciscan Order for all times, made such as approved in the Vatican by the authority of Pope Benedict.

This text confirms to us that the picture on the altar of St. Francis of Assisi in the Friary of Kaunas was considered the authentic picture of this Saint.

The Painting of the Guardian Angel

Andriejus Romanovskis. A painting of St. Guardian Angel (Angelus Custos). Around 1680. Photo R. Valinčiūtė-Varnė

A guild of helmsmen (barge people), with the altar of the guild’s patron saint, the Guardian Angel in the church of St. George is mentioned in 1617 in the archives of the Kaunas Bernardine Friary.

Neither the altar, nor the painting from those times has remained. It is possible to suppose that after the conflagration in 1668 some of the altars were rebuilt in their former places and dedicated to the same patron saints, following a common tradition in the shrine. Most probably in 1680 a new altar of St. Guardian Angel was mounted in the same place as well.

The altar has remained (although heavily damaged), together with its old painting ANGELVS. CVSTOS., painted on wooden board (the artwork had not been restored up to now). The painting is carefully signed at the bottom on the right side: “Pinxit. Andreas Romanowski.” The picture not only shows a precisely painted figure of the Guardian Angel holding a child in a close and affectionate embrace, but also a tiny composition of the Holy Trinity high in the sky and a fragment of Kaunas city at the bottom. In this we recognize the view of Kaunas at the end of the 17th century. It is the oldest known panorama of the town, seen from the North, i.e. from the river Neris. It is very precious for studies of the development of Kaunas' iconography.

Apart from this, it also depicts an episode from the life of the barge people of Kaunas: the wind drives sailing barges over the river. One of them is lead by the Guardian Angel himself who looks exactly like the one in the center of the painting, although much smaller.

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


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