For the past four months I have lived next door to a holy shrine, a chapel built into a medieval gatehouse. The structure is the last surviving gate in the defensive wall that once ringed the city of Vilnius, Lithuania. An icon of the Virgin Mary hangs within, facing the Old Town through a large arched window over the gateway. The painting has been adorned in a protective casement of golden-hued silver that makes her resplendent at all hours, but especially at night, when light is cast on her surface and she shines for all in the street to see.
Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn, as the painting is known, is said to have protected the city from harm, healed the sick and comforted the wretched for three long centuries. It remains a potent symbol of mercy for Catholics in the region. In this Holy Year of Mercy, named by Pope Francis, the icon is inspiring an outpouring of reverence. People pray before the icon by the hundreds each month, experiencing private miracles that they commemorate with votive offerings, tiny silver medallions shaped like hearts, legs, arms and eyes. Many of these medallions have been affixed to plaques on the walls of the small chapel, testifying to the painting’s wonder-working powers.
In all seasons, tour buses deposit pilgrims outside the gate. Most are from Eastern Europe, but in summer we are deluged by Chinese tourists as well; they throng below the gate, dutifully recording images with phones and cameras held aloft. With these rich visitors come beggars, who establish strategic positions just under the gate’s archway and appeal for spare change in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian and English.
My morning routine takes me through the gate, past these beggars, into the heart of Vilnius, a maze of streets lined with medieval and Renaissance buildings. Many fellow residents are likewise heading to work at this hour, and not a few turn to look up at the icon and make the sign of the cross before moving on. Some passersby go to the trouble of visiting the chapel in person. To do this, they enter a door in a wall behind St. Theresa’s, the Baroque church that stands adjacent to the gate. The door leads to a steep flight of stairs, at the base of which hangs a crucified Jesus. Some visitors pause here to kiss and caress the statue’s feet. From his shins to his toes, the enamel has been worn, the plaster made pale with so much touching and kissing.
The stairs were previously of a soft stone made concave by heavy use, but the passage to the chapel has been modernized with a new flight of marble stairs and improved lighting. Years ago, before these renovations were completed, one could see elderly women ascending the stairs on their knees, with rosaries in their hands. This spectacle is rarer now.
The stairs bring visitors to the entrance of the chapel in the gatehouse over the street. Because of the large windows, it is a well-lit room. In the morning I’ve found here a dozen or two elderly women reciting the rosary in Lithuanian. Most of them kneel on the tiled floor or on a wooden kneeler surrounding the altar on three sides. They kneel a long time with faces intent on prayer, eyes closed. As the chapel is small and often crowded, visitors may have to step over other penitents to find a spot along the wall.
Those entering the chapel, I’ve noticed, often hesitate to look forthrightly at the icon. The Virgin looms large in this narrow space. The worshiper kneels or stands in intimate proximity to her grand and shining surface. Though known as Mother of Mercy, she can instill a certain discomfort.
But eventually visitors do look, and this is what they see: the Virgin encased in silver, her head slightly tilted, eyes closed, arms crossed at the wrists before her chest. Of the painting, only the hands and face are visible, and these are an earthy shade of brown. Her downcast eyes project serenity, or perhaps sorrow. The fingers seem crudely rendered because of the overlay of the casement, fashioned in the Byzantine style. In this image, Mary has no child. She seems neither young nor old but somehow outside of time. The trauma of her son’s life has passed; this is not Mary, but the Queen of Heaven, already assumed into heaven. She wears not one but two crowns adorned with glass gems, and silvery spindles are arrayed in an aureole around her head. In the19th century, the Virgin received one further adornment—a crescent of silver that stands just in front of the image, curving upward, forming a rotund and extravagant boundary.
After taking in this richness of ornament, the viewer will return to gaze at the dark face, which might be read as merciful—if, that is, an expression can impart mercy. According to the logic of iconography, it can. Grace, mercy, divine love may flow from an aesthetic surface properly viewed; the image of Mary rendered in paint on oak boards does not merely represent mercy but provides access to it for the prayerful.
As with many European shrines, a variety of tales have attached themselves to the icon, but no singular event seems to have birthed the tradition of the Gates of Dawn. Its status is owed to a gradual accretion of meaning throughout history. One might argue that the icon’s capacity to work wonders preceded its existence, in that it was commissioned by the governor of Vilnius for the purpose of protecting the city, as were other icons placed within city gates and walls.
Most of the tales associated with the icon concern the city’s vulnerability. In 1702, after the Swedish army occupied Vilnius and prohibited locals from worshiping the icon, the Virgin’s powers caused the tremendous iron grate below to fall and crush four Swedish soldiers warming themselves by a fire. Soon thereafter, local forces rallied against the invaders and liberated the city.
A similar story is told concerning a Russian invasion six years later; when a conniving soldier attempted to steal the icon’s vestments, he was hurled against the chapel wall and killed. Thereafter, the invading army treated the Lady with respect. And in 1711, on the day of Pentecost, a fire broke out in the city and threatened St. Theresa’s, but two quick-thinking monks carried the Virgin into the church; the inferno retreated and the structure was saved.
Yet for all the icon’s powers, Vilnius would fall repeatedly to foreign forces in the modern era. The once vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which Vilnius had been a seat of power, was erased from the map in the 1790s, its lands divided among Russia, Prussia and Austria. For the next century Vilnius would belong to the Tsar and in the 1900s, five distinct nations would claim the city: the Russian Empire, Poland, Germany, the Soviet Union and independent Lithuania. Throughout this period, devotion to the shrine would be colored by nationalist sentiments, political yearnings and ethnic loyalties. Though the Soviet regime shuttered many of the capital’s churches, it allowed the Gates of Dawn to remain open, an acknowledgment of the passions the shrine inspired. Thus, the Virgin looked down 25 years ago as the occupying Soviet forces gave up and left Lithuania independent.
Today Lithuania exists within the European Union, a secular political entity. Many of the visitors are not Catholic or even Christian. Yet unlike better-known shrines that have become chiefly tourist sensations, the Gates of Dawn remains a site of fervent yet obscure devotion. In mid-November every year, the icon’s feast day is celebrated with eight days of Masses and concerts that attract thousands into the chapel and neighboring church. Souvenir stands and shops lining the street do brisk business selling icons, rosaries and trinkets to the faithful. Each morning of that week, St. Theresa’s overflows, and the chapel in the gate is brightly lit and full of worshipers late into the night.
Certain Catholics refer to Vilnius as the City of Divine Mercy, even though a decidedly merciless genocide took place here not long ago. From 1941 to 1943, nearly all the city’s approximately 40,000 Jews were killed by Nazi soldiers and local collaborators. The systematic slaughter of the Vilna Jews makes a cruel irony of the appellation. The title gained currency only after the war, arising not from claims about the citizenry’s moral character, but from a series of visions experienced by a Polish mystic.
From 1933 to 1936, the nun Helena Kowalska was stationed in Vilnius, where she claimed to have had a series of encounters with an angel, Mary and Jesus. While she was praying in the Gates of Dawn, the icon of the Virgin came alive and told her to submit unquestioningly to God, “like a little child.” In another vision, Jesus instructed her to create a painting of “divine mercy” as it had been revealed to her in visions. The nun thus collaborated with a local artist to render an image of divine mercy that hangs today in another Vilnius church. It features a barefoot Jesus looking into the eyes of the viewer, a hand held to his heart, from which rays of soft, colored light shine forth.
When the painting was unveiled in the Gates of Dawn chapel in 1936, Sister Kowalska saw this image, too, come alive. Jesus’ hand made the sign of the cross over those in the chapel. Before the nun died of tuberculosis two years later at the age of 33, she would be credited with the founding of a new order of nuns and a tradition of devotion to mercy that is still practiced today. Pilgrims honor her memory by taking trips to her former convent, reading her spiritual diary and repeating a prayer “given” to her by Jesus called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
St. John Paul II canonized Sister Kowalska as St. Faustina in 2000. As with many saints, at the center of her legacy are works of art: the icon of the Virgin and the painting of divine mercy. In both cases, she experienced the aesthetic objects not as representations, second-order signs or imitations of the real but as embodiments of divine agency.
When I visited the icon of the Virgin this winter, I expected no miracles, but I did kneel before it. I felt rather self-conscious, being the youngest person in the room, an American and not nearly as devout as the people around me. An old woman beside me murmured prayers in a rhythmic, scarcely audible hum. The windows were open, a breeze coming through, and we could all hear soft voices from the street below. Otherwise, the chapel was silent.
Perhaps because I’d heard that many ill people had been relieved of suffering after visiting the icon, I prayed for my mother, who for decades has been afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis. But my prayer felt weak because of my self-consciousness and general skepticism. I soon gave up trying to pray and simply looked at the icon. Only then did I begin to experience something like reverence.
Here was an existential proposition, an image of a storied life defined by godliness, by its intimate involvement with the divine. What could one say to, or alongside of, this face? What to make of so much meaningfulness, this crowding of signs calling out to be read? The flowers in the Virgin’s silver gown signified her inner garden, the beauty of the soul; the crowns marked her status as heaven’s queen; votive offerings symbolized healed arms and hearts. One could participate in the tradition of this icon without embracing the theology surrounding it. In my case, simply being there summoned appreciation for the entire aesthetic project that is the Gates of Dawn.
To think of such a place as an “aesthetic project” might seem to discount the faith that gave rise to it. But the faith itself is inseparable from story and image, from the New Testament narratives and all the art they inspired. Images have always embodied and enacted what they purport to represent. They can exist independently of what they refer to; we encounter them, if we are awake to their potential, as dynamic objects asserting new realities. The icon of Mary in Vilnius has its own life. The petitioning goes on every day, the kneeling and yearning before the image. Here form and content are one; the icon, made of boards, paint and silver, substantiates the faith one places in its power. The system of exchange continuously nourishes itself, generating acts of homage that infiltrate civic life.
This morning as I passed through the gate I closely observed the motions of those around me. A middle-aged, dark-haired women in drab clothing turned to glance at the icon and make the sign of the cross with a worried look. Another paused, her back to the chapel as if uncertain whether to turn or not. She did turn and likewise made the sign. Finally, a third woman walked by; she hesitated and threw a glance over her shoulder at the Virgin before walking away. As for me, I made no backward glance, no sign of the cross. And though I know the image is only a painting and has no eyes with which to see, I felt as if the icon were watching me walk away. But I was too self-important or merely self-conscious to return her regard. I recalled Lot’s wife, who knew she must not look back at the burning city but could not resist and was at once turned to a pillar of salt. Laying eyes upon divine power has always been risky.
The Mother of Mercy ostensibly offers refuge from danger and harm, as mothers are supposed to do. She gives material form to our desire to see the metaphysical. To regard the icon, the chapel and the entire tradition embedded within it is to participate in a collective yearning. Without diminishing it, one can think of Catholicism as a series of aesthetic gestures and forms, an abiding involvement in image, word and song. The Gospel of John begins with this mysterious proclamation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
As I now live next door to the gatehouse during my sabbatical, I pass beneath the icon several times a day. I have developed a habit of looking at it when I return home in the evenings. Mary is always shining in her window, watching over the street below. I have grown grateful for this rarefied presence, respectful and inclined toward pious feelings when I pass. I have even caught myself speaking inwardly to the icon, muted utterances of gratitude for the life I am leading. If you were to ask me on such evenings if I believe in the Virgin Mary, I would say yes, I believe in her, meaning the icon itself in all its thing-ness and contingency. Faith begins with image.