Legends about the Miracles of the Holy Virgin Mary of the Gate of Dawn

Every city has its own legends. In the Lithuanian Chronicles and other sources, there are stories recorded about the howling of the iron wolf and weeping of Lizdeika. Most often they are legends that are characteristic of other nations. The miracles of the Holy Virgin Mary of the Gate of Dawn occupy a special place in Vilnius’ history. It is perhaps the most famous sacred painting in Lithuania. How did these stories appear?

The “most miraculous” painting in Lithuania

On September 6th, 1503 King Alexander I announced a privilege for Vilnius residents that freed them from military service so people could build a defensive wall for the city. Gradually the entire defensive complex was built. In the southern border of the city, which was called the Sharp End, there were gates built. They have survived until the present day, but are called the Gate of Dawn. 

New research shows that the painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy of the Gate of Dawn was painted on oak planks. The techniques and painting method cannot be that used for icons, as was thought in the 19th and early 20th century. The painting maybe have been brought from the Netherlands or painted in Vilnius by a painter from Northern Europe, which used the engravings from Dutch masters that were made at the end of the 16th century.

People still believe the miraculous power of this painting today. The first recognised miracle took place in 1671 as the painting was taken from a church to a wooden chapel: a child fell from a second-story window on the ground, however he was taken to the care of the Virgin Mary and did not suffer injury. The thankful parents hung a painted plank in the chapel, which depicted this miracle. The plank was set on fire in 1715.

The wrath that befell the Swedish soldiers

A number of legends tell tales of how foreign soldiers were punished who tried to mock and steal the painting. In 1702 Vilnius was occupied by the Swedes led by Charles XII. The Catholic churches and monasteries suffered. One soldier shot the painting of the Mother of Mercy. The bullet broke the glass and went through the metal covers of the painting as well as the oak plank it was painted on. The hole made by this bullet can be seen today (near the right sleeve). Guards would shoo away the faithful and did not allow them to pray and sing near the chapel of the Gate of Dawn. It is said that they are opening mocking Catholics. God-fearing young women were a particular target of scorn. Once solders at the bastion near the Gate of Dawn made a fire, drank beer and wine stolen from the cellar of the monastery and sang off-colour songs. Suddenly the heavy iron doors of the gate came off its hinges and fell directly onto the celebrating soldiers. Two died instantly, while another two died later from injury.

During the fire of 1707, when the chapel of the Gate of Dawn burned down, monks Father Zacharia and brother Urbon carried the painting in miraculous fashion from the fire to the church “without any difficulty, not feeling any weight.” However, under normal circumstances, four strong men would be needed to carry the painting.

Punishment for the godless: Virgin of the Gate of Dawn did not turn the other cheek

Another legend about this painting is known from the times of the Great Northern War. At the end of Castle Street, where Cathedral Square is located, was the sight of the Castle Gate, which in the 1830s was demolished by the Russian Tsarist government as they were building a fortification complex. There was a large dark stain a few fathoms up on the wall of the gate from the inside that could not be covered regardless of what was done. They tried to whitewash it, but the stain would still come back. It had a strange shape, similar to that of a crucified person, with his arms stuck out to the sides and legs that were somewhat bent at the knees.

It is said that this stain appeared on the gate as the Swedes occupied Vilnius. During the Great Northern War, the Swedish army occupied Vilnius in 1708, but according to the legend, it occurred in 1706. The Swedes made the city pay steep contributions and were violent and plundered the city. The Swedes behaved in a particularly severe manner with Catholic priests. It is even said that during worship they would steal the wine glasses straight from their hands. One Swedish commander observed how his soldiers were shooting with their cannons. When it became clear to him that the roof of the Church of St. Casimir was laid with gold, he ordered them to stop shooting. One audacious soldier, who had broken into the Church of the Gate of Dawn, wanted to steal its treasures. Having stepped up on the altar he ripped off the cloak that covered the painting, but though as much as he tried, he couldn’t even take off the votive offerings that were hanging freely.

This strange, unseen force pushed the soldier up against the painting, then he pulled out his sword and struck Mary in the face.

Blood gushed from the place where she had been struck and a scar remained. Suddenly the Holy Virgin Mary raised one of her arms, which had been crossed, and pushed the Swede in a way that he simply flew and struck the Castle Gate and splattered all over. Another legend says that Castle Gate was demolished precisely because of the stain that could somehow never be removed.

After the Russian army had occupied Vilnius, one night a soldier broke into the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn and wanted to steal the metal covering. However, a secret unearthly power raised him up and was dealt a fatal blow as he was thrown against the wall. After this event, the position of the military leadership changed. The soldiers standing guard near the Gate of Dawn were forbidden to even smoke. The soldiers began to give money during the offering, buy little pictures of the Mother of God, hoping for her protection.

Childish stealing or a sacred “loan”?

According to one tale, the chain that is on this painting appeared when it was given as a gift by a person who had experienced a miracle. It is said that he was an orphan that was taken care of by a milkmaid who was a widow. Later the provost of the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn took care of the child. The child loved the Mother of God very strongly. Once he fell asleep during Mass. When the service ended, the child was locked in the church. At midnight, two angels entered the church and woke up the child. The angels took him to the chapel and uncovered the face of the painting of the Holy Virgin Mary. They said that the Mother of God, having heard the prayers of her child, would help him become a great person.

The angels opened a box that was near the altar and offered to him to take some gold coins.

The boy did not agree to do this, saying that the money was for the Holy Virgin Mary. But the Holy Virgin Mary just smiled, nodded and allowed him to take the gold coins. Many years passed. The boy travelled to Riga and was a servant for merchants there and diligently guarded his little jacket where he had his money. Later, now a young man, he finished his studies and, having become a famous man, gave the afore-mentioned chain as a gift and each year send expensive things to the Holy Virgin Mary. Another legend tells the tale of a wealthy man who suffered from dropsy and was very swollen. He asked the Holy Virgin Mary of the Gate of Dawn to help him get better and promised to give a long silver chain to her, the kind he could wrap around himself while his body was swollen. The poor man recovered and fulfilled his promise. There are a many legends about miraculous healing and other miracles that are linked to the painting of the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn. This painting attracts throngs of pilgrims and believers even today.

Dominikas Burba