St. Christopher is considered the patron saint of travellers, but his symbol has a different meaning in the centuries-old coat of arms of Vilnius. The change of meaning occurred in the 14th century when Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, granted Vilnius the right of self-governance in 1387. He was baptised in Krakow a year later and the Lithuanian nobility was baptised in Vilnius in February and March of 1387, while the townspeople and residents were baptized soon after. St. Christopher bearing baby Jesus was then chosen as the seal of Vilnius and the coat of arms to signify the spread of Christianity, an extremely important event for the entire country. Today, St. Christopher reminds us that we were the last baptized country in Europe, and we were the only ones to make a civilizational leap. Through baptism, we have become an integral part of Europe.
Various legends recount the horrors lurking in the city’s dungeons, which were documented at the beginning of the 18th century during the rule of Sigismund Augustus. It was said that the Basilisk, a lizard or a snake with a crowned rooster head known from ancient times, could kill with its glance. People managed to outwit and kill the Basilisk. The legend became part of the city’s folklore and it has been stirring people’s imaginations ever since – there’s an abundance of stories about the mythical creature.
The three crosses are an integral part of Vilnius and only acquired their current concrete form during the rampage of the First World War. Architect Antanas Vivulskis designed the crosses but the Soviet government decided to blow the symbols up in May of 1950. For almost 40 years, the crosses did not stand atop the hill overlooking Vilnius but laid on the ground rotting. However, they did not fade away from people’s memory. As soon as the Soviet regime weakened, the crosses were rebuilt on the initiative of active people. Now, the white crosses are lit in various colours to commemorate public holidays and to honour foreign states.
Ten gates were built into the defensive wall surrounding Vilnius at the beginning of the 16th century. Only the Gates of Dawn (or Ostra Brama in Polish) remain to this day. Their defensive function is lost to the past, but the gates have become a significant symbol for the two nationalities in Vilnius – Lithuanians and Poles. Famous for its miracles and graces, the 17th-century painting of the Mother of Mercy hangs in the Chapel of the Gate. The importance this piece has for worshipers is evident from the abundance of pilgrims and the thousands of votive offerings (ex-votos) found there. The Mother of Mercy painting was worshiped locally for a long time; however, after the divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the painting and the Gates of Dawn became a symbol of the fight for freedom. Although the coronation ceremony of the painting performed in 1927 was considered ambiguous, the cult of the Mother of Mercy only intensified.