Kaunas St. George the Martyr Church
St. George the Martyr Church, which is a part of the original heritage of the Lithuanian national architecture, beautifully reveals the authentic Gothic architecture stylistics of that time in the Baltic region. The tall red brick Church is monumental and a bit austere from the outside, but cosy and mysterious when you walk in. Gracious multiplex buttresses (i.e. vertical architectural elements that hold the building’s dome), aligned among the pointed arch windows, provide the Church’s exterior with subtlety. Its exterior is rhythmic, harmonious and full of vertical proportions. According to architectural historians, the buttresses that decorate the chancel (the part of the building which is designated for the Grand Altar) are especially interesting: even though they support the cornices of the attic and the arcs above the windows, it seems there is no real connection between them and the wall.
The interior of the Church – which is one of the cosiest in the City – is truly distinctive, as multi-coloured stained glass windows, elegant columns and ornate altars create an impression of unique wholeness and harmony. The depth of its Gothic dome, the austerity of the masonry and the networks of ribs create a beautiful combination with the Baroque decorative elements: stucco mouldings, elegantly decorated pilasters and dynamic lines of the interior details.
At the beginning of the 17th c., the Church was adorned by an astonishing amount of 16 altars. This huge number testified plentiful donations and the appreciation the townspeople had for the Bernardines’ activities. Regrettably, quite soon St. George the Martyr Church suffered from the same hardships that the entire country was plagued by: wars with Russia and frequent fires that depredated its interior. Nonetheless, at the end of the century, townspeople assisted the friars in restoring the sanctuary and recreating its ornate Baroque interior, which can be admired to this day.
For several centuries, the Church was well known in the country for its ornateness and multitude of altars. Even though their amount had decreased, there still were as many as eleven altars – all financed by the nobility, different societies and guilds of the townspeople. A copy of the painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa, known for its miraculous abilities, was the centre of attention: it was covered with crowns, vota and silver garnitures. People say that miracles used to happen near the painting, and all of them were registered in a special book by the Bernardine friars.
In the 19th c., the sanctuary was affected by repercussions of the Napoleonic Wars and the oppression of the Tsarist Russian Empire. Eventually the Church and the Friary were given to Kaunas Seminary, which retained its ownership till the World War II. During the times of the Soviet occupation, the Church was closed and made into a drug warehouse. The building stood desolate and uncared-for. After the country regained its independence, the sanctuary was eventually returned to the Lithuanian St. Casimir Province of the Order of Friars Minor, which breathed new life into the Church of St. George the Martyr.
In 2018, the Church was restored in preparation for Pope Francis’ visit. The restoration was conducted in an especially thorough and attentive manner. Authentic elements were accentuated, the damaged interior Baroque details were recreated, cement fillings and old electrical installations were removed, and the walls were covered in paint that reveals the colouring of the 17th c.
The newly reborn sanctuary stands tall on the “Bernardine Path” once again…