The Church of St. Francis of Assisi
The Bernardine Church is one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings of worship in Lithuania. This multi-layered and multifaceted structure embodies the essence of Vilnius Old Town. It is a great example of one architectural monument presenting a fascinating conglomeration of various artistic styles and elements: the famous Gothic red brick construction and pointed arch windows, as well as decorative Renaissance and Baroque elements seen in the gable and the towers all fit organically into the building’s façade. The tall octahedral belfry, oftentimes declared as one of the most alluring structures of the Lithuanian Gothic, is the centrepiece of the Church.
There has always been certain magnetism surrounding the Church, which withstood and survived the plentiful wars and fires wreaking havoc on Vilnius. The first Bernardine church in Vilnius was made out of wood. It is believed that the wooden building was destroyed during a fire in 1475. After that, it was rebuilt several times, and, during the period from 1506 to 1516, the wooden structure was transformed into an exceptional building, dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. If the city guests of those times and their letters are to be believed, the new Church was one of the most sumptuous buildings in Vilnius of that time. The Bernardine Church, St. Anne’s Church and the Friary buildings all form a remarkable ensemble. In the context of the 16th c. Vilnius, this ensemble was defined by its magnitude and distinctive architecture. It is believed that the construction of this Church was also aided by some of the masters that had constructed and rebuilt the Palace of the Grand Dukes of the Lower Castle and had been responsible for building the defensive wall of the city.
The Bernardine Church suffered greatly from many fires and enemy attacks, which were ravaging Vilnius. The fires of 1560 and 1564 were especially detrimental, because they destroyed the Church’s entire interior. Moreover, during the war that lasted from 1655 to 1661, the Friary ensemble was vandalised by the army of Moscow. Separate parts of the structure had to be renovated and transformed several times by the Friars Minor, however the Gothic architectural elements of the building have remained virtually unchanged till this day. In the 17th – 18th c., the Church acquired characteristics of Renaissance and Baroque stylistics. During that time, its façade was enriched by a fresco with a crucifix, which informed worshippers about the most significant value of this sacred place and the essence of the Franciscan spirituality from afar.
The Soviet occupation brought about the closing of the Church. For several years, the building stood unattended, until it was placed at Vilnius Academy of Arts disposal and was turned into a warehouse. Only in 1994 did the Friars Minor return and start restoring and renovating the Bernardine Church. Finally, the sanctuary once again belonged to the people and this event marked a new page in the city’s history.
The outside of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi is not the only fascinating thing of the building – the Church’s interior is full of wonderful discoveries as well. The walls of the naves are decorated with unique Gothic frescos. They display colourful figure compositions that show scenes from St. Francis of Assisi’s life, and some of them are accompanied by Gothic font inscriptions, floral ornaments and heraldic signs. The Church has eleven late Baroque style altars, all of which are wooden and exhibit natural timber colours. What is more, the interior is enhanced by a 15th c. sculpture of the oldest known crucifix in Lithuania. The lateral naves demonstrate authentic magnificent net, stellar (lierne) and crystal vaults. Here one can discover tombs of many famous Lithuanian noblemen and valuable 17th c. monuments to Great Lithuanian Marshal Radziwill Stanislaw “the Pious”, General Peter Veselkovsky and Count Vladislav Tyszkiewicz.