Miraculous Images and Everyday Life

Since the Middle Ages, believers in Western Europe have been associating various places and items to the divine grace they said they received in these places or through these items which include numerous relics, sacred stones and springs and, very often, holy images. The so-called miraculous paintings, widely known for their innumerable mercies, have been adopted only by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches because the Reformed Church has utterly rejected adoration of any image. This is why the worship of works of art as well as the miracles attributed to the sacred images came under scrutiny during the reformation of the Catholic Church in the second half of the 16th century.

Registries of miracles tell of divine graces

It was in the second half of the 16th century that the holy images known for mercies first emerged in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Their popularity reached its peak in the second half of the 17th century and remained high throughout the 18th century. Usually the miraculous images were average-size altar paintings, but in some instances believers would adore sculptures and fairly small paintings such as the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Tverai, or stone reliefs such as the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Żyrowicze. Despite the fact that the Church has so far confirmed just a few of the adored images as possessing the power to render mercies, an 18th century visitor would have found votive offerings or inscriptions related to all kinds of miracles in every third church across the country. Votive offerings usually placed next to sacred paintings are signs of gratitude that testify the mercies the believers had received. The oldest surviving register of divine mercy dates back to the late 16th century. The list includes the votive offerings donated to the Vilnius Cathedral and related to the painted image of Saint Casimir. Similar 17th century registries often included miracles too. Special books were used to document and testify miracles. The records, in turn, served as a basis for a request to the Catholic Church to provide an official sanction to the cult of the particular image.

Descriptions of miracles occasionally appeared as individual publications.

In the 18th century, miracles attributed to a particular image sometimes inspired the creation of sets of small-size paintings depicting the miracles, one example being the three-inch sculpture of the Blessed Virgin Mary inside the St Marry Church in the town of Traupis. The sculpture is accompanied by several tiny pictures illustrating the sculpture’s history and the miracles it has wrought.

The miraculous image that helps save the drowning

The evidences of miracles recorded in the 17th and 18th centuries open up a broad picture of everyday life and help us understand the situations that would impel the believers to ask for mercies, intercession, and support. These documents shed more light onto the everyday life of the lowest ranks of the society that have otherwise been neglected in the majority of written sources.

When would an individual ask for a mercy?

Personal pleas were very often voiced while kneeling right in front of an image. Sometimes, however, help and support was needed immediately, for instance, when a ship faced a danger in the sea.

Once the danger has passed, the survivor would arrive to pray to the holy image. In addition, he or she would usually leave the votive offering to testify the miracle. People would act in the same way in other distressful situations as well, e. g. in case of fire, childbirth complications and loss of consciousness.

The 1674 document describes how the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ostrovna helped Mykolas Reutas escape the wolf infected with rabies: “I found myself in a deadly misfortune while mowing because I was bitten badly by a mad wolf that attacked and injured a number of mowers after lunch ten of whom eventually died of severe bites. As I was approaching my own early death caused by that beast, I called upon the Lord God and the Blessed Virgin of Ostrovna for help and fell over the mad animal and, as soon as I pronounced the name of the Mother of God, the beast who has been showing its madness until now, escaped and did not attack me again.”

Miraculous images help ease tooth pain and mental malaise

Most of the divine mercies, roughly two thirds of them, are related to health issues. Descriptions of the miracles provide a list of widespread illnesses of the time. People would call upon heavenly powers to help fight body weakness, sight or hearing disorders, tooth pain, body aches, intense bleeding, various epidemics, gatherings, and the Polish plait (plica or trichoma) when unattended hair, full or dirt and lice, forms an irreversibly entangled mass. People would also thank their patrons for choke and smother relief during meals or in less common situations when one happened to swallow a needle or a bone. Sometimes people would ask for help to their relatives submerged in melancholy, the condition considered unhealthy at the time, as well as to relieve the symptoms of various mental disabilities. The 1675 written evidence by Jerzy Gurski, a nobleman from Kaunas, describes the mediation of the painting in the Bernardine Church:

“For almost one year, he endured severe lapses of reason so that he would almost lose his reason and suffer great affliction. Often he was obsessed by insane and hopeless minds, but he started regaining his strength after devoting himself to that painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

Some people sought for otherworldly assistance in recovering lost or stolen property as well as for protection during travel and help in settling conflicts with neighbours or members of the extended family. Occasionally believers asked for heavenly protection for their pets and thanked for recovered horses considered lost, or those that managed to heal their injuries. On rare occasions, miraculous images helped in finding friends of heart.

Unkept promises lead to even more severe illnesses

People would very often pray for mercies for their relatives, especially children, not for themselves. Appeals for support by mothers or both parents feature in every second document of that kind. Wives, sisters, husbands and children would plea for mercies as well.

The documented miracles indicate the mercies that the people had been rewarded with but the overall number of those pleading for mercies and receiving them is impossible to determine. The testimonies describe the hardships that the people faced and that could not be overcome without the divine assistance. In a number of cases, miracles have been witnessed by the lower-class people but monks and the nobility would often plea for mercies too. Mikołaj Pac, the elder in the town of Krychaw, was brought down by a serious illness in 1649 but recovered quickly after promising an offering to the painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a church in Budslau.

However, he later faced an even more severe ailment, his wife almost losing all hope of his survival, because he failed to materialise his earlier offering.

It was only after the renewal of his pledge that the nobleman miraculously recovered again in just six hours. He witnessed that himself shortly as he arrived to pray in front of the image.

Mindaugas Paknys