Journey around Vilnius streets: St. Casimir- patron saint of Lithuania

Uliczka św. Kazimierza zachowała wygląd starożytny i posiada arkę z korytarzem nad nią Fot. Justyna Giedrojć

This time we will take a walk around St. Casimir Street (Šv. Kazimiero g.).

In the guidebooks we can find the information that this street is the narrowest street in the whole Vilnius. Its breadth is merely 2,5 meter. It used to be called St. Casimir’s alley, Augustine’s alley or Kazarmienny (from Casimir) alley. This extraordinarily picturesque 17th century street runs from Ostrobramska Street (Aušros Vartų g.) to Bakszta Street (Bokšto g.). It maintained its antique look and it is decorated with an ark and a corridor above it. Walking towards Augustine Street, on the left side we can see the buildings belonging to the Jesuits’ Junior High School. The school is located in the buildings surrounding the church of St. Casimir.

At a time of the Soviets , there was Antanas Vienuolis High School with Lithuanian as the language of instruction. The building is covered with a magnificent baroque dome of St. Casimir church. What is very interesting is the life history of the patron saint of this beautiful Vilnius street. Casimir Jagiellon was born at Wawel Royal Castle in Cracow as the third child and second son of Casimir IV Jagiellon and Elisabeth Rakuszanka. Jan Długosz was the teacher of both Casimir and his brother. Casimir was being prepared to become the king of Hungary. He was considered as an even-tempered, intelligent and educated young person. From 1475, Casimir IV Jagiellon had been introducing his son, considered to be the heir to the throne, into the secrets of rulership. For almost 2 years prince Casimir was the king’s commissioner in the kingdom. Shortly, however, it turned out that he suffered from consumption. He died on March 4th, 1484. We was buried in St. Casimir Chapel in Vilnius cathedral. The young prince’s death caused a stir in Poland and Lithuania. There appeared a lot of statements and epitaph praising the prince.

Lithuania had been a Christian country for 100 years then, but it did not have a patron saint of Lithuanian origin. The Lithuanian magnates had good memories of the prince (they even considered him to become the next Grand Duke). Saint coming from their family would also add to the prestige of the Jagiellon dynasty. The prince who died at such a young age and who enjoyed the opinion of being just and religious, was a good candidate to play both of the roles.

In 1518, king Zigismundus Old sent a request for his beatification. For this occasion, in 1602, Casimir’s tomb was opened. According to the witnesses, despite the humidity of the place, after 118 years his body remained untouched by decay. The canonization celebration took place in 1604 in the Vilnius cathedral. On this occasion, bishop Benedict Woyna consecrated the cornerstone of the first church of St. Casimir, which was next to the Jesuits’ collage. In 1636, the saint’s relics were solemnly brought into the church fund by Zigismundus III and Vladislav IV, and in 1953 the saint’s remains were moved from the cathedral to St. Peter and Paul church. Some of the relics were sent to Maltese Hospitalliers on the request of their Chapter, as in 1960 they chose St. Casimir for their patron saint.

From 1636, St. Casimir is the main patron saint of Lithuania and from 1948, he is the special patron saint of the young people in Lithuania (it was announced by Pope Pius XII). He is one of the historic patron saint of Poland and the apostle of those committing themselves to the public service. In Lithuania, he is also known as the patron saint of craftsmen.

St. Casimir church in Vilnius (the Society of Jesus’ church) – it is the first baroque Catholic church in the Vilnius Old Town (Didžioji 34), which was raised up in the honour of Casimir the Prince. The church was built from 1604 to 1618 as a vote after St. Casimir’s canonization in 1602. The initiative for the bilding came from the saint’s relative – king Zigismundus III and Lew Sapieha. The Jesuits resided by the church. After the Jesuits’ order was closed in 1733, the church was took over by the Augustines.

In 1812, the French army demolished the interior of the church and changed it for a corn store, and next for a prison for Russian captives. It contributed to even greater devastation of the interior. During the tzar’s repression after the November uprising, the church was passed to Catholics, and after the January uprising governor M. Murawiow gave the order to rebuilt the church for a orthodox church. The project was done by Russian architect, Mikołaj Czagin. He mostly deformed the architecture of the church and removed rococo decoration. In 1917, the church came back to the Catholics. After World War II the church was again confiscated, this time by the Soviet authorities. In 1966, it was rebuilt for the atheism museum with Lenin’s monument at the place of the main alter. In October 1988, the church came back to the Catholics and in 1991 it was taken by the Jesuits, who devoted it to the sacral usage only.

St. Casimir chapel – early baroque chapel in the Vilnius cathedral, which was built from 1623 to 1636 according to the project of Matteo Castelli (after 1632 it was finished by Constantin Tencalla). It was devoted to St. Casimir, whose relics lay in this chapel. Its architecture is based on the Zigismundus Chapel at Wawel, but it is twice that size.

On the alter, there is the portrait of the patron saint of the chapel. The saint has three hands at this painting. According to the well-know legend explaining that fact, the author tried to change the composition of image by painting over one hand and repainting it in the other place. However, the covered limb still remained visible.

At the top of the cathedral there are three saints – St. Casimir, St. Stanley and St. Helen, who are the patron saints of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. The sculptures were made by professor Kazimierz Jelski and they were destroyed in 1950 by the Soviet authorities. After Lithuania regained independence at the beginning of the previous century, the sculptures were reconstructed and they decorate the cathedral’s arcade again.

In the previous century, the relics of St. Casimir were travelling around Vilnius street. There were two particularly moving events connected with this. The first one – in 1922, in the 400th anniversary of his canonization. As a part of the celebration, St. Casimir’s body was put into the sarcophagus. The second ceremonious procession around the street of the town took place on March 4th, 1989 and it was held in honour of Vilnius patron saint. The silver coffin with the relics of the Saint was coming back from St. Peter and Paul church to the cathedral St. Casimir Chapel.

The coffin had been staying in the baroque church at Antokol since Vilnius cathedral was closed and redecorated into art gallery in 1950. A crowd of Vilnius accompanied the procession. The relics of patron saint of Lithuania were planned to be carried by the specially prepared carriage with four stallions. Unfortunately, it never happened. Supposedly, the carriage was sent to a wrong address. Then clergymen took the coffin and figure of the Saint on their shoulders and carried to its destination.

St. Casimir’s figure is still very popular.

Recently, a book entitled “The history of St. Casimir’s image from 16th to 18th century. Between iconography and text” has been published. The author is Lithuanian writer Sigita Maslauskaitė-Mažylienė. There are not many of such books. In Lithuania, the research concerning St. Casimir is really popular and no other saint did attract such an attention as the Saint from the Jagiellon family.


Tłumaczenie by Aneta Gębska w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, Translated by Aneta Gębska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights,

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