The Miraculous Painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, in the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn

The look in Dawn Gate Mary’s eyes, her posture with the hands folded gently and a slightly leaning forward silhouette convey the humble resignation, loving tenderness and compassion. The Holy Mother of Mercy seems to look not in front of herself but rather into herself and into what is happening close to her. More specifically, she is looking at a person who is stumbling at the foot of her image. Her entire posture is neither triumphant nor majestic. To the contrary, her demeanour is modest, with a touch of sadness, and reflecting concern… Traditionally, Mary’s image with her hands crossed for a prayer was used to portray her waiting for Jesus, leaning over the manger with baby Jesus lying in it or standing by the side of the suffering Jesus. This is a fragile Madonna of the new times, permeated with the spirit of devotio moderna movement, which spread in the Northern Europe in the late 15th century. Her gesture and facial expression are the embodiment of a silent individual prayer, a meditation, detached from the public liturgical forms, and reserved but inwardly smouldering sensuality, very unlike the cult icons known for an air of grandeur and static quality about them.

Aesthetic and spiritual connection with the environment

In a contrasting and paradoxical manner, Mary’s fragility and internal dynamics is in tune with the whole environment surrounding the icon and its decoration. First, this is metal casing covering the painted image – the glitter and opulence of the queen’s attire has become an inseparable part of Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn and her expression of grace. Yet another layer surrounding the image is the chapel. The numerous votive offerings left in gratitude for the prayers answered and the grace received; make the chapel look like a book of miracles which has acquired an architectural form, witnessing a multi-faceted relationship between the painting of the Holy Mother of Mercy and the congregation. Finally, the importance of the City Gates should be stressed as well, the name of which was conferred upon the Icon of the Holy Mother of Mercy at the Gates of Dawn.

So far it is not known who painted the picture and at whose will it was installed above the City Gates.

It has been established that the Madonna of the Gate of Dawn was painted around 1620–1630, following the example of the Dutch artist Marten de Voso (1532–1603). It is highly probable that the engraving by Thomas de Leu, created in 1580, must have been used as the basis. The picture itself (200 x 162 x 2 cm.) is painted on an oak panel, glued of eight boards. The boards were covered with a very thin chalky primer, on which the painting was created – this was characteristic of the Northern European painting tradition. The colours used are neutral and deep, and there are not many of them.

A diptych of paintings

The Madonna of the Gate of Dawn and the painting of Christ as the ruler of the world once made a diptych. At the beginning, both Mary’s and Jesus’ paintings hanged above the City Gates – the Saviour’s image was placed on the external side of the Gate, and Mary’s image on the internal side. The presence of Jesus’ painting above the City Gates is witnessed today by the fresco   uncovered on the external side of the Gates of Dawn, in the niche above the entrance arch. The fresco, which is actually a copy of the original painting, must have been created in the 18th century. The original picture of Jesus the Saviour has not survived, and its copy made in the 18th century is kept in the Church Heritage Museum. However, in the second half of the 17th century, a cult of Mary’s picture started to evolve. In 1668, the city authorities entrusted St. Teresa’s Discalced Carmelite convent, which was located nearby the City Gates, to take Mary’s picture under its patronage. The Carmelites are believed to have taken care of the painting even heretofore. It was upon the initiative of the Discalced Carmelites that the first wooden chapel was built in 1671 above the Gates. The same year, the first miracle of the Holy Mother of Mercy at the Gates of Dawn was recorded. She was believed to have revived a child who had been pronounced dead. In 1761, the Fellowship under the Patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary was established next to the Gates of Dawn. In 1773, the Feast of Our Lady, Mother of God, commemorated by the Universal Church, was started to be celebrated in Vilnius as the Feast under the Maternal Care of the Gates of Dawn Mother of God. In the course of time, it evolved into a religious feast of Gates of Dawn Mother of Mercy, lasting eight days.

A work of art and an object of worship

No iconographic images known for their miraculous powers created before Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn have been identified so far. Traditionally, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania copies of images famous for their miracle-working powers in Western Europe were venerated, among them the Loreto figurines, Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore icons or Our Lady of Częstochowa statuettes. Side by side with the famous Blessed Virgin Mary of St. Michael the Archangel’s Church and the former Bernardine monastery, the so-called “Sapiegine,” Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn should be regarded as a rare instance in religious painting and culture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, when a painting started to be regarded as miraculous regardless of its primal iconographic image.

From a compositional point of view, the painting is not original. Nevertheless, it is believed to have been professionally painted by an unknown artist and is stylistically related to the Dutch school of painting, influenced by the Italian artistic tradition.

There were rare instances of paintings that could equal Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn in artistic level or style in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the early 17th century, or they have not survived.

Therefore, it could be regarded a cult painting not merely due to its religious significance, which increased in the 18th-19th centuries, but also due to its artistic and aesthetic attributes. One of the earliest descriptions of these attributes is to be found in “Relation on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s picture,” written in 1761 by St. Gregory Hilarion, Father of the Vilnius Discalced Carmelites. “The picture, painted on oak boards (…), portrays the Blessed Virgin Mary as a merciful and compassionate Mother with a large oblong face, her head slightly inclined to the right, her hands crossed at the palms, as if she were ready to hug and embrace a sinner. [The painting] radiates love and care to those looking at it; it also seems to incite a certain fear, admiration and affection; one can see a change of colours – the face seems to either go pale or blush at times.”

Tojana Račiūnaitė