Iconographic Narration in the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Vilnius

St. Peter and Paul’s church in Vilnius has long attracted the attention of researchers and tourists. It is believed that the first wooden church was built on the outskirts of Vilnius after Władysław II Jagiełło’s conversion. It remained wooden for a long time. In the first half of the 17th century, the monastery of the Lateran Canons was established under the auspices of the church. However, the major changes in it were introduced during the construction and decoration of the church, launched by the Hetman of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Hetman Michał Kazimierz Pac in 1668.

It should be noted that it is neither the architecture nor the painting that makes St. Peter and Paul’s church so unique. Its exclusivity in the artistic Baroque context of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania stems from the exquisite stucco moulding inside the church. St. Peter and Paul’s is reportedly the most northern church in the entire Europe, in which such plentiful stucco moulding was used for the decoration of the interior. At the same time, sculpture as a means provides excellent opportunities to portray the individual scenes and convey the visual narrations.

Do You Know?

The church is believed to be decorated with over 2000 religious depictions, even though nobody has come up with an accurate count.

From 1677 to 1684, the church was decorated by the Italian painters Giovanni Pietro Perti and Giovanni Maria Galli. The former specialized in stucco moulding, whereas the latter excelled at creating ornaments and plafonds (the stucco moulding on the ceilings and vaults). The fact that great masters were working in the church for a long time and practically were in charge of its decoration from the beginning to the very end, accounts for its major artistic peculiarities and advantages. Even though the church was renovated more than once, the stucco moulding inside the church remained more or less unchanged. Therefore, after almost a quarter of an age has passed since its creation, we can still admire the ideas and narrations conveyed once via artistic forms.

In the past, separate scenes were intended to remind one of the saints and biblical events, whereas today it looks like “a stagnant theatre.”

Omnipresent God the Father and the constellation of saints

The visitor encounters various sculptures at the very entrance of the church, among them God the Father, surrounded by angels.

The church is decorated in such a way that when one approaches the main altar, the overall impression gets stronger and the scenes depicted gain more weight and acquire more significant meaning.

Across the central nave, statues of apostles are evenly distributed in the recesses. They are like faithful soldiers of Christ, accompanying the faithful throughout the church on their way to the main altar. In the recess of the dome (originally in the porch) we see only St. Augustine. However, at a closer look, we see the sculptures of St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory. Therefore, the space under the dome, in front of the main altar, in which the four Evangelists and four eminent Fathers of the church are portrayed, becomes as if protected by the most important truths of the Church and preachers of science. In the transept, on both sides, two more altars open up, one dedicated to Jesus Christ and the other to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Standing under the dome and looking upwards, one can see the image of God the Father in the dome lamp vault. There are several sculptures of God the Father inside the church, located in different places, starting from the entrance to the presbytery, as if conveying the message that God the Father is omnipresent and nobody can hide anything from him, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Together, all of them (God the Father, Jesus Christ, The Blessed Virgin Mary, apostles and the Fathers of the Church) create a strong iconographic “carcass,” whereas the separate smaller niches in it are filled with other plots.

The decoration as both a tribute to the founder and an uncanny artistic contrivance

Almost all the portrayed saints and the narrated plots are related to the monastic order, the founder and the values professed by them.

For example, the message of St. Augustine’s chapel was   to highlight that the Lateran Canon monks regarded him their main inspiration and followed his teachings. The interpretation for installing St. Knights’ chapel is quite simple, based on the founder’s lifelong dedication to serve in the army. During the last 15 years he was chief military commander, most impressed with the examples of Christian Saint Knights, known for their martyrdom. In this chapel, we can admire the sculptures of St. Knights and the image of St. Martys, the Roman warrior who adopted Christianity and died for this faith, moulded on the chapel vault.  On the left subvault, a miraculous posthumous apparition of St. Casimir before the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the beginning of the 16th century is portrayed. St. Casimir appeared before the Lithuanian troops on a white horse at the Daugava river during the war with Russia. A large Russian army had assembled beside the river outside the river of Polotsk, where a small group of the Lithuanian warriors stood guard. The river was swollen and there was no way that they could cross it. St. Casimir took them across the wade. His apparition saved the warriors from the enemy encirclement and annihilation. St. Casimir, who was the founder’s heavenly guardian, is portrayed in this scene in an unusual manner, namely as a warrior and not as a prince.

Among the sculptures decorating the church, one can also find rarely depicted or even fantastic creatures. This was characteristic of Baroque painting, which sought to impress the audience. In the church decoration, beheaded characters (even infants) are portrayed and drastic images shown (e.g., a realistic portrayal of a beggar), images of massive fantastic creatures (e.g., Tritons in the Christening chapel) are conveyed and even death portrayed as the Reaper is depicted. The Reaper, treading upon the insignia of high position (signs of power) seems to give the message that in death we are all equal. Some scenes can only be discerned upon a closer look. For example, in the plafond decorating the wall of St. Ursula’s church, between the intertwined branches, we can see both a curling snake and the birds singing from the twigs.

History in the plots of stucco moulding

Side by side with fantasy decoration, accurate, realistic or historical decoration exists. The plafond of St. Queens’ chapel is adorned with various belongings of a priest, such as a missal, several goblets, paten, censer, stole, hat, candles and candleholders. There is little doubt that these items belonged to the Dean of Antakalnis (end of the 17th century). In some places, one’s attention is attracted by the realistic images of young people (mostly girls), moulded in a variety of ways, with a careful attempt to convey the features of an individual portrait. One could guess that this is the earliest gallery of portraits of Vilnius residents (possibly residents of Antakalnis outskirts).

Among the plentiful examples of stucco moulding, we can also find the images related to specific historical events. The largest of them is the decoration of the left subvault of the left transept, in which transfer of the painting of the Holy Virgin Mary Gracious Mother to Antakalnis church is portrayed. The painting was donated to Antakalnis church in 1653. The copies of the painting, created at the beginning of the 15th century, had gained fame for their miraculous powers as intercessors, sparing them from the plague. In the mid-17th century, such a copy was acquired by the Bishop of Vilnius Jerzy Tyszkiewicz, who later donated it to St. Peter and Paul’s church. The bearded bishop himself is portrayed in the stucco moulding on the sub vault, whereas the procession of the painting being carried by members of the congregation to St. Peter and Paul’s church is depicted as a coiled snake, in the attempt to show the procession as long as possible. Even today the painting of Holy Virgin Mary Gracious Mother, hanging in St. Peter and Paul’s church, is regarded as the oldest monument in the entire church.

Mindaugas Paknys