From here to the stars: education and confessions in Vilnius


1. Baroque towers and spirit

Unlike the Gothic and Renaissance periods, Baroque was the first cultural epoch that Lithuania and Vilnius fully immersed itself into – it was no longer about imitation but unique creations. The long-term influence of Baroque is evident – people walking around Vilnius today can see examples of early (St. Ignatius Church), mature (the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul), and late (the Catholic Church of the Ascension) Baroque architecture. The fact that Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, nicknamed the Lithuanian Horace, studied and created in Vilnius also illustrated the close connection between Vilnius and the Baroque style. A peculiar stylistic school formed in Vilnius at the beginning of the 19th century and prominent architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz created Baroque masterpieces for Lutherans, Catholics, Unitarians, Orthodox and Jews.

2. Vilnius University: harmony between traditional and modern

Vilnius University has been inviting students to reach for the stars for 400 years. The spirit of forward-looking science has been lying there forever: Marcin Poczobutt, the university rector and an astronomer discovered a new constellation in 1777, while 240 years later biochemist Virginijus Šikšnys discovered the DNA Scissors technology to stop genetic diseases. Those who do not feel elevated by the power of science can climb to the Bell Tower of St. Johns’ Church in the old ensemble of Vilnius University to enjoy the panorama of Vilnius that tells the entire 700-year history of the city, which is closely intertwined with the history of the university. Starting as a sanctuary of science in the 16th century and arising from the religious spirit of the Jesuits, the 21st century has witnessed Vilnius University become a secular respected scientific institution. It crosses the borders of the Old Town and creates the face of a modern, science-based city.

3. Famous printing houses

Johann Gutenberg’s invention reached Vilnius rather quickly. Francysk Skaryna founded a printing house in the house of the chief burgomaster Jakub Babich and published the first book in the city. Vilnius then became a book-publishing centre, with printing houses founded by Vilnius Academy, monasteries and citizens – Mamoničiai, Józef Zawadzki, Borisas Kleckinas, Martynas Kukta, and Petras Vileišis. Books that were published in several languages (for example, Boierus Laurentius’ Carolomachia, Konstantinas Sirvydas’ Points of Gospel, and Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s Vilnius: From its beginning to 1750) reflected the breadth of readers’ horizons. At the same time, the newspapers that published the 1794 proclamation of the rebels and the Act of Independence of 16 February revealed the importance of the press in public life.

4. Vilnius and the saints

Vilnius has many shrines and monasteries, and is connected to the lives of several saints. The story of the three Holy Martyrs of Vilnius (St. Anthony, John and Eustathios) spread in the Orthodox world in the 15th century. The cult of St. Casimir, who distinguished the Jogailaičiai Dynasty as well as Lithuania, was born in Vilnius. The Jesuit monks St. Andrew Bobola and Basilian St. Josaphat Kuntsevych grew as personalities in the city. A participant of the 1863‒1864 uprising, Carmelite Raphael of St. Joseph Kalinowski was born in Vilnius. The Image of Divine Mercy, inspired by the visions of Faustyna Kowalska, has been making Vilnius famous for almost a hundred years. And the seven years of serving as the Archbishop of Vilnius were an important stage for the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis’ path to holiness.

5. Mosaic of Cultures: Civitas Ruthenica

Civitas Ruthenica (Ruthenian City) was a suburb of Vilnius inhabited by Orthodox merchants and craftsmen. It began forming in the eastern part of the city in the 13th century and developed throughout the 14th century. The Orthodox churches – the Cathedral of the Theotokos, St. Nicholas’ Church, Saint Parasceve Orthodox Church – and the communities of Orthodox monks were formed in this suburb. Civitas Ruthenica developed alongside the pagan city and later, the “German City” concentrated around St. Nicholas Church. It was an integral part of Vilnius representingt a mosaic of cultures.

6. The sounds of Vilnius on Sabbath evenings

Every Friday evening until the Second World War, the sounds of festive services and cantors from the city’s 135 Jewish houses of worship in the Old Town and Šnipiškės filled the streets. On workdays, synagogues were open not only for prayer but also for religious studies. All of the city’s religious Jews gathered at the Great Synagogue, but there were many smaller synagogues whose visitors were drawn by profession or rabbinic authority. Today, only one of the former pre-war synagogues operates in Vilnius – the choral synagogue on Pylimo Street. It was founded at the beginning of the 20th century as the spiritual centre of Jewish Enlightenment in Vilnius. This synagogue has now taken over the duties of the spiritual centre of all religious Jews in Vilnius.

7. JIVO – the strongest historical thread between Vilnius and New York

In 1925, when the Hebrew University opened its doors in Jerusalem, the Institute of Yiddish Literature and Science was established in Vilnius. It preserved the cultural and ethnographic heritage of the Yiddish language and raised science in the Yiddish language to the highest level. The institute was necessary to the European Jewish diaspora – Sigmund Freud, a pioneer of psychoanalysis, and Albert Einstein became members of the council. We can safely say that there was a place for Vilnius in the mind of the world-famous physicist next to his theory of relativity. However, we dare not guess what place Vilnius had in Freud’s subconscious. Thanks to a successful coincidence during World War II, JIVO moved to New York with Max Weinreich at its forefront. It continues its activities there to this day. JIVO is one of the strongest and longest cultural threads connecting Vilnius to New York.