The Light of the New Jerusalem in Samogitia

Pilgrimage without ‘leaving away from home’

The so-called complexes of the Way of the Cross (The Via Dolorosa, or the path followed by Jesus from court to Golgotha, the place of crucifixion) was not a novelty in Europe at that time. They were established with the aim of creating the illusion of the Jerusalem city at the time of Jesus. The Stations of the Cross marked the route followed by praying and chanting pilgrims to experience the drama of Christ’s suffering.

“Jerusalem shall see those who cannot travel,” read the inscription on the Varallo Calvary gate in Northern Italy.

In various countries, a number of complexes dedicated to the Passion of Christ were erected, of varying size and impressiveness. The chapels, gates, towers and crosses were decorated with paintings and sculptures. In such a way, the resemblance was created to the route that Jesus took between his condemnation by Pilate and his crucifixion and burial. The calvaries were started to be established as early as the Middle Ages. In some countries, due to the deriding attitude of the Reformation movement toward pilgrimage, they faded away. However, in the second half of the 16th century calvaries enjoyed revival and became prevalent again, together with the renewal of the Catholic Church. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the construction of the first religious complex of this type was started in 1600 built by Mikołaj Zebrzydowski in his holding near Krakow. At the time when Jerzy Tyszkiewicz lived in Krakow, still a young priest then (from 1622 to 1626), Zebrzydowski’s Calvary complex was already functioning and was further expanded and decorated with new brick chapels.

Hilly Samogitia turned into Jerusalem hills

Having become Bishop of Samogitia, Jerzy Tyszkiewicz decided to establish a calvary dedicated to the Passion of Christ. He chose the settlement of Gardai, with a small wooden church of St. John the Baptist, to realize the dream.

The landscape of the location suited the requirements of the religious complex to be built. It reminded of a hilly Jerusalem landscape, with the Kidron river crossing the territory. In Samogitia, it was the Pagardenis river dividing the territory.

The book by Mikołaj Bardowski contains the following description: in the summer of 1638, the Bishop invited to Gardai members of the Society of Jesus, the Spaniard Benedict de Sochs and the Samogitian Michael Ginkiewicz from Vilnius to discuss the idea of the calvary. They were joined by the Jesuit Jonas Jaknavičius, who served as the Bishop’s confessor. During the meeting, relevant decisions were taken regarding the location and nature of the Way of the Cross ensemble. On the very next day, the Bishop gave “an order to mark the uttermost limits of the Gardai hills with crosses: this will be the place shining with the signs of the dead Saviour…” The places of the would-be Stations of the Cross were also marked with crosses. The preparation of the calvary plan was based on the treatise about Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Ierusalem sicuti tempore Christi floruit by Christian van Adrichem (1584), a Dutch Bible scholar and geographer, popular around Europe. The treatise included not only a detailed description of Jerusalem but also a map with the Stations of the Cross from the Last Supper to Golgotha.

The new shrine attracts crowds of pilgrims

Jerzy Tyszkiewicz succeeded in gaining acceptance of his idea.

In the poem, created in 1649, an anonymous pilgrim sings praises to the Samogitian Calvary: ‘Rude crosses have only just been raised, / neither churches nor chapels have yet been built; / and yet such large crowds of people have gathered already from everywhere, / as if they heard the angel calling upon them: / new processions are demanded by them, / trees are prepared for crosses and churches by them…’.

Among the first distinguished persons to visit the construction site of the calvary and to sponsor its construction, was the Court Marshal of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Kazimierz Leon Sapieha, later to become Deputy Chancellor, a would-be General Elder of the Samogitians Jan Alphonso Lacki, the Elder of Palanga Stanislaw Anton Vaina. Leading a solemn procession along the route marked by crosses, Bishop Jerzy Tyszkiewicz followed the old tradition, scattered the soil brought from Jerusalem to strengthen the symbolic ties with the Holy land.  In 1639, mass was already held in the Samogitian Calvary. The crowds of people it attracted were as numerous as the congregation in Zebrzydowski’s calvary. That same year, Pope Urban VIII granted a plenary indulgence to the six Chapels of the Samogitian Calvary Stations of the Cross: those of the Last Supper, Olive Garden, Whipping, Crowning with Thorns, Crucifixion and Burial. The Chapels along the Way of the Cross were built of wood and adorned with artistic altars, painting and sculptures.

Venerated relics as a source of attraction for pilgrims

The function of supervising the maintenance of the Samogitian Calvary and pastoral work with pilgrims was entrusted to the Dominicans, famous for their educational background and the art of preaching. In 1642 they were granted a piece of land for the construction of a wooden monastery and a church. The old Gardai church of St. John the Baptist was turned into a Station along the Way of the Cross. A short time later, a new church of Dormitionem Beatae Mariae Virginis was erected, with the painting of the Mother of God, brought by the Dominicans from Rome and famous for granting divine grace, as the altarpiece.

Bishop Tyszkiewicz never ceased to patronize the pilgrim centre founded by him.  In pursuit of an even greater glory for the centre, he obtained from the Dominican monastery in Lublin an invaluable relic of St. Cross, which had been deposited in the convent and revered from the 14th century. The relic had been brought to Lublin from Kiev, where it had been deposited in the 10th century, taken all the way from Constantinople. Due to the mediation of the Founder of the Lublin Dominicans, the Bishop’s cousin Janusz Tyszkiewicz Łohojski, the prohibition to segment the relic was circumvented. A piece of sacred wood was placed in a silver reliquary and brought to the Samogitian Calvary in 1648. Since then, the relic became an integral part of the Stations of the Cross ritual and a highlight of ceremonial processions. To this day, the relic is carried by the Bishop, leading the procession during the Great ecclesiastical feasts along the Way of the Cross.

Bishop Tyszkiewicz is known to have referred to the fruit of his creation as the New Jerusalem. In his report of 1646, addressed to Rome, listing the most famous shrines within his diocese, the Bishop wrote: “And yet the New Jerusalem, newly established by me […] is more famous, in proportion to the thousands of people who gather here any month at the established time, particularly at Lent and the Holy Week; they attend the religious services dedicated to our Saviour’s suffering, during which they confess their sins […] and are granted abundant divine grace…” To conclude, it can be said that the light of Jerusalem reached Lithuania. The Samogitian Calvary was the first religious complex of this kind in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the second in the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Dalia Vasiliūnienė