The Frescoes in the Church of St. Teresa in Vilnius

The frescoes in the Church of St. Teresa in Vilnius are the most impressive works of their kind surviving from the artistic heritage of the old Lithuanian province of the Discalced Carmelites. The story of the frescoes begins with a fire that broke out in Gate of Dawn Street at the end of May in 1760, after which, by 1763, the church was restored and decorated with frescoes, through the efforts of the friars and the provincial Władysław Jewasiewicz. It is not known whether or not the walls of the church were decorated with frescoes before the fire. The friary record books of 1661 to 1787 mention that the artist Samuel Dorosewicz, who decorated the church’s main altar and carried out other interior decoration work, is buried in the church. The decoration of the nave was finished in September 1763, and the next year decoration work was carried out on the vaults and the walls of the side chapels. On 3 January 1767, according to the friary documents, after the fire, Maciej Sluszczanski became the artist of the church frescoes: Mathiae Sluszcanski Pictori Vilnensis.

The story of St. Teresa on the domes of the church

The spirituality of the Discalced Carmelites, and the life of their founder and spiritual leader St. Teresa, was portrayed for the benefit of Vilnius society in 18 scenes from the life of St. Teresa, in the vaults over the church’s nave, in eight scenes on its walls, in 12 images of saints on the archivaults of the aisles, six illusory altars, and nine emblematic compositions.

Work of this kind could only have been produced with the active participation of the Carmelites, using a range of visual and emblematic sources, in the form of separate images and quotes, from graphics or book illustrations, in order to form a new compositional whole.

One such source that circulated around the Carmelite friaries in Western Europe was an 18th-century series of engravings by Arnold van Westerhout called Vita Effigiata della Serafica Vergine S. Teresa di Gesu, comprising more than 60 drawings with short Latin commentaries. The mystical engravings were based on St. Teresa’s canonisation material after 1680, when van Westerhout, who came from Antwerp, began working in Rome. The artist decorating the Discalced Carmelite church in Vilnius based his work mainly on this source of images about the life of the saint.

Looking at the church, we can identify indirectly several different authorships: the usual version of the life of the saint; her first biographers, based on whose stories artists created their pictures (Arnold van Westerhout); and the Vilnius Discalced Carmelite friars, who oversaw the decoration of the church and its visual agenda.

The unique language of the visual storytelling

The visual representation of the saint’s life has to be studied consistently, separately examining the images following their chronological order, by reading the explanations, and turning from one etched dome to another. Meanwhile, on the church’s vaults and walls, we can see various unconnected clusters of images, as if they are lit up by a spotlight. Many of the paintings are surrounded by rocaille.

Guidance of impression replaces the “horizontal” chronological narrative, the visual and semantic weight increases as the space changes, obeying the movement and the symbolism of the church’s architectural structure.

 The mutual dependence between the image and the architectural space change the relationship that exists in a book between the images and the text. The theatrical principles of the church are expressed by achieving an intense emotional state, and the rational surroundings give way to irrational effects.

The sizes of the compositions in the vaults relate to the meaning conveyed in them, portraying a hierarchy of scenes. The three-arch separated zones of meaning in the vaults of the walk-through side chapels are painted with symbolic emblems, forming three steps in a mystical journey. 

St. Teresa’s spiritual journey

The first zone, closest to the entrance of the church, is crowned with the nun’s mystical betrothal to Christ. Another scene surrounding this big picture relates to the themes of the nun’s vocation and devotion to God, showing the imitation of Christ, penance, and the practice of contemplation. In this section, there is a scene showing Christ being led to Golgotha, and an emblem symbolising the Passion. In one emblem in this stage, a boat is shown floating on water, and another depicts a jug watering desert plants. A journey through a desert symbolises the commitment to follow Christ, through monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, “through the dark night of the soul.” This purification and disassociation from all worldly desires is represented by the stage of climbing to Mount Carmel. In the first phase, the theme leads to portrayals of the founders and patrons of the Carmelites, and St. Teresa as the founder of the reformed branch of the order.

The culmination of saint’s life

The themes of repentance, the forgiveness of sins, and God’s love feature in the next zone. Beside them are clear images of St. Teresa portrayed as a spiritual writer. Emblems in the side chapels of burning chapels and hens gathering their chickens show the Word of God and divine grace, and the light of faith, united in the Apostolic and contemplative spirit of Mount Carmel. The last period, symbolising the enlightenment stage in the journey of the mystic, is related in the third zone of the nave, in which, in the painted vision in the main picture, Christ shows St. Teresa extremely beautiful objects, and allows her to see and touch the wound in his side. Next follows the exchange of the saint’s wooden cross for a cross decorated with precious stones, and the coronation of St. Teresa. This is the stage of divine grace and crowned love. Images of St. Teresa’s pierced heart express the unity of suffering. Heaven opens up in the vault of the dome over the main altar, symbolising Christ, with the end of the soul’s journey on earth. The third stage, joining the mystic’s soul with God, includes a depiction of St. Teresa’s death and apotheosis. In one of these stages, crowned hearts are depicted in side chapels, and on a side wall, the journey of the founder’s soul from purgatory to heaven is depicted. In this way, the friary’s benefactors, members of the order, and the redemption of all believers’ sins and the hope of seeing the true Lord, are added to the triumph of St. Teresa’s mystical journey. 

Tojana Račiūnaitė