Vilnius (Wilno in Polish) is the capital of Lithuania, which was part of the multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until this was destroyed in 1793 by the Prussian, Austrian and Russian Empires. Lithuania was taken over by the Russian Empire; then, after a brief period of independence between the wars, it was illegally occupied by the Soviet Union until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989.
In the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn there is a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary which has been venerated by the faithful since the 17th century, and which became a symbol of the national identity that the invaders sought to obliterate. Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn (Lithuanian: Aušros Vartų Dievo Motina, Polish: Matka Boska Ostrobramska, Belarusian: Мац Божая Вастрабрамская) is a major focus of pilgrimage from the successor states of the Commonwealth: Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.
Pope John Paul II visited the chapel in 1993.
The painting depicts complex personality and devotion to Mary. Her head is gently leaning to her right, her eyes are half closed, her hands are crossed in devotion; this reminds that she is a virgin, humble servant of the Lord, merciful mother and patron of the people. At the same time, her head is surrounded by an aureola with golden rays and her body is usually covered in elaborate gold and silver clothes and crowns; these are the symbols of her divine and majestic role as the Queen of Heaven. The painting also reminds of Tota pulchra es (You are all beautiful), an old Catholic prayer.
Miracles and Votive Offerings
In 1761, the monk Hilarion published a book enumerating 17 miracles attributed to the painting and the Virgin Mary. The first miracle he recorded occurred in 1671, the same year the first chapel was built. A two-year-old child fell from the second floor onto a stone pavement and was badly injured. The parents then prayed to Our Lady and the next day the child was healthy once again. In 1702, Vilnius was captured by the Swedish Army during the Great Northern War. The Swedes, who were Protestants, mocked the painting, forbade songs and prayers, and caroused around the Gate of Dawn. One soldier even shot at the painting (the bullet hole can still be seen on the right sleeve). In the early morning of Holy Saturday, the heavy iron gates fell and crushed four Swedish soldiers – two died instantly and two later from their injuries. The next day, Easter Sunday, the Lithuanian Army successfully counter-attacked near the gate. The commander, grateful for the victory, bestowed a large silver votive offering upon the chapel. The painting is also credited with other miracles: subduing a city fire in 1706, punishing a Russian soldier for an attempt to steal her silver clothes in 1708, and numerous miraculous healings. Other stories of various miracles were kept by the Carmelite monks, but those books have not survived.
The icon of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn has become associated with the messages of Divine Mercy. Eight years after the icon was conferred the title of Mother of Mercy, the first exposition of the Divine Mercy image, painted by Eugene Kazimierowski under the direction of Saint Faustina Kowalska, took place at the chapel on April 1935. In her Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, she writes of a mystical experience involving the icon in the Gate of Dawn chapel. On 15 November 1935, Saint Faustina was at the Gate of Dawn chapel participating in the last day of the novena before the feast day of the icon, 16 November. She writes of seeing the icon taking on “a living appearance” and speaking to her, telling her “accept all that God asked of me like a little child, without questioning; otherwise it would not be pleasing to God.”
In the chapel, the residents of Vilnius have prayed for generations for special graces for themselves and their families through the intercession of the Mother of God.
Numerous replicas of the icon of the Holy Mother of Mercy are displayed in churches in other countries, including the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul where a replica of the image is displayed in a chapel.
In 1773, Pope Clement XVI granted indulgences to the Fraternity of the Guardianship of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Vilnius.
By the Pope’s decree of 1927, the painting of the Madonna in the Gate of Dawn chapel was given the name of the Icon of the Holy Mother of Mercy and was crowned with papal crowns. The coronation ceremony became an important national and religious event – the image was crowned by the papal nuncio (the crowns went missing during the World War II).
Religious celebrations take place between November 10 and November 16. The Feast of Our Lady of Mercy is on the 16th.
THE HOLY MOTHER OF MERCY
By Fr. Michael Sopoćko
“For us, Mary is a Mother of Mercy, and her testimony of mercy began at Calvary. Since then, grace has streamed on people through the intercession of Mary: she strengthened the Disciples in their work; she obtained inspiration for the Evangelists. And particularly, after she was assumed to Heaven, she looks after us and obtains the Divine Mercy for us even more.
Maybe we recognise the numerous sins in our lives; maybe somebody sank into sin – Mary obtained for him the grace of conversion. How many times this was repeated, will remain a secret known only to God, but if many times – then we became the subject of special endeavours of our Mother of Mercy. She was the one who put in our mouths the words: JESUS, I TRUST IN YOU and postponed the moment of eternal and horrendous punishment.
Surely everything comes from the Merciful Jesus, but all the graces we are granted come to us through Mary. (…). This has been proven by numerous, wonderful places where, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, people are cured from illnesses, comforted in sorrows and receive hope in despair. It was not a coincidence that the picture of the Most Merciful Saviour, enjoying worship and granting graces all over the world, was originally displayed at the foot of the Holy Mother of Mercy (April 28, 1935) on Low Sunday – one might say for her to approve and recommend it. Therefore, let us strengthen our ties with Mary, Mother of Mercy and trust her boundlessly”.