“In mercy, God bends over us.” – Pope St. John Paul II
Of the nine gates that were once part of the defensive walls encircling the old, medieval city of Vilnius, only one remains. Built between 1503 and 1522, the Gate of Dawn is one of Vilnius’ most important religious, historical, and cultural monuments. It owes its significance to the fact that the chapel built over its arch is home to the icon of the “Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy” – also known as “Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn.”1
In the 16th century, it was common for people to place religious artefacts in city gates. The purpose was to not only protect the city from enemies, but also to bless travellers who were leaving the city. For this reason, the icon was hung in the small chapel built over the Gate of Dawn (which is also known as “Ostra Brama”).
Icon of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn
Painted on eight joined oak boards by an unknown artist in the 1620s, “[the icon] was covered with silver and gold around 1671.”2 It is an unusual image, for in this painting Mary is not depicted holding her infant Son. Instead, she is alone and pregnant, praying as she crosses her hands over her breasts.
The painting beautifully captures many of Mary’s attributes. “Her head is gently leaning to her right, her eyes are half closed, her hands are crossed in devotion. This reminds us 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 sunrays and her body is covered in elaborate gold and silver clothes and crowns. These are the symbols of her divine and majestic role as the Queen of Heaven.”3
Mary is the one who bore God into the world, and because of this she is identified with the Church. The symbol of the waning moon at the bottom of the icon reminds us that the Old Testament and the synagogue are the foundations of the Church. The crescent moon is also a symbol of fertility, of beauty and purity, and of the victory over sin.4
Miracles Associated with the Icon
From the beginning, so many miracles were attributed to the intercession of Our Lady the Mother of Mercy that news of her power spread quickly. The chapel walls are covered with votive offerings – expressions of gratitude left behind by those whose prayers have been answered, who have received Divine favours through the intercession of Our Blessed Mother. According to one story, Swedish soldiers were planning an attack on Vilnius. When they attempted to enter the city through the Gate of Dawn, it collapsed on top of them. Mary had decided to take a direct hand in the matter, the Swedish army was decimated, and those who survived fled. But this is only one of many stories.
“In 1655 the army of Moscow set fire to the city of Vilnius and most of the town was destroyed. The fire lasted seventeen days. However, the image above the Ostra Brama gate survived without any damage. This strongly encouraged the people’s devotion toward it and attracted many pilgrims. Since then it is considered a miraculous symbol of Lithuanian and Polish independence.
Between 1671 and 1761 seventeen more miracles attributed to the Lady in this image were chronicled. One story tells of a boy who fell from the second floor of a building and died. When his mother prayed before Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn he revived.”5
Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, paid homage to Our Lady in his 1834 epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. “Holy Virgin,” he wrote, “who protectest bright Czenstochowa and shinest above the Ostra Gate in Wilno [Vilnius]! Thou who dost shelter the castle of Nowogrodek with its faithful folk! As by miracle thou didst restore me to health in my childhood – when, offered by my weeping mother to thy protection, I raised my dead eyelids, and could straightway walk to the threshold of thy shrine to thank God for the life returned to me – so by miracle thou wilt return us to the bosom of our country.”6 The childlike trust and reverence the country has for Our Lady the Mother of Mercy explains why she is regarded not only as the Queen of Vilnius, but also Queen of Lithuania.
St. Maria Faustina, Divine Mercy, and the Gate of Dawn
The Gate of Dawn is also significant because of its connection to the life of St. Maria Faustina and the Feast of Divine Mercy. St. Maria Faustina lived in Vilnius from 1933 to 1936, and she often came to Ostra Brama to pray.
It had been in Płock (on Feb. 22, 1931) that St. Maria Faustina first received a vision in which Jesus asked her to paint His Image with the words, “Jesus, I Trust In You.” But it was to be in Vilnius that this request would finally be fulfilled. St. Faustina persisted in speaking about Jesus’ request to her confessor and spiritual director, Fr. Michael Sopoćko. She was insistent that “God had placed him in her path and that He wanted the Merciful Jesus image to be venerated all over the world. Fr. Sopoćko recalled, ‘Driven by my curiosity as to what the picture would be like, rather than by a belief in the authenticity of Sr. Faustina’s visions, I decided to set about having the picture painted. I came to an understanding with an artist, Eugeniusz Kazimirowski [a well-known artist in Vilnius], who lived in the house I lived in. He undertook to paint the image for a certain sum. I also obtained permission from Sr. Faustina’s superior to allow her to visit the artist twice a week to describe the image that he was to paint.’ ”7 Although St. Faustina was disappointed in the finished painting because she felt it did not reproduce the beauty of Jesus, He reassured her, saying, “Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in my grace.”8
Now that the painting had been completed, St. Faustina continued to insist that Jesus’ image be displayed for public veneration, just as He had requested. “At that time (1935) the Triduum that ended the Jubilee of the Redemption of the World – the nineteenth centenary of the death and Resurrection of Christ – was to be celebrated at Ostra Brama. Ostra Brama, with its miraculous Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy image, was Vilnius’ main pilgrimage center and the most prominent place of this Christian devotion in the Vilnius region.
St. Faustina’s confessor was wondering how Jesus’ demand could be fulfilled when, all of a sudden, the parish priest of Ostra Brama, Canon Stanislaw Zawadzki, asked him to give a homily during the Triduum. Fr. Sopoćko agreed, but on condition that the Merciful Jesus image would be placed in the Ostra Brama cloister window. And so it was. In the priest’s opinion: ‘It looked impressive, and it drew everyone’s attention more than the Mother of Mercy Image.”9
In her diary, St. Maria Faustina wrote, “On the first Sunday after Easter [April, 1935] … the image was publicly honoured by crowds of people for the first time. For three days it was exposed and received public veneration. Since it was placed at the very top of a window at Ostra Brama [Shrine of Our Lady, above the ‘Eastern Gate’ to the city of Vilnius], it could be seen from a great distance. At Ostra Brama, during these three days, the closing of the Jubilee of the Redemption of the World was being celebrated, marking the nineteen hundred years that have passed since the Passion of our Savior. I see now that the work of Redemption is bound up with the work of mercy requested by the Lord.”10
St. Maria Faustina was also blessed with a miraculous vision. “On Friday, when I was at Ostra Brama to attend the ceremony during which the image was displayed, I heard a sermon given by my confessor [Father Sopoćko]. This sermon about Divine Mercy was the first of the things that Jesus had asked for so very long ago. When he began to speak about the great mercy of the Lord, the image came alive and the rays pierced the hearts of the people gathered there, but not all to the same degree. Some received more, some less. Great joy filled my soul to see the grace of God.”11
And so it was because of the faithfulness of St. Maria Faustina and Fr. Sopoćko that the Feast of Divine Mercy was celebrated for the first time on April 28th, 1935 at the Gate of Dawn. It was also here that the image of The Divine Mercy was first displayed for public veneration at the conclusion of the Jubilee of the Redemption of the World (April 26-28, 1935). The festival of Our Lady the Mother of Mercy is now the most important celebration in the Diocese of Vilnius and is celebrated for a week in the second half of November. The Church observes this special Feast Day on November 16th.
– Sharon van der Sloot
PRAYER TO THE MOTHER OF GOD OF OSTRA BRAMA MOTHER OF MERCY
“O Mary, my Mother and my Lady, I offer you my soul, my body, my life and my death, and all that will follow it. I place everything in Your hands. O my Mother, cover my soul with Your virginal mantle and grant me the grace of purity of heart, soul and body. Defend me with Your power against all enemies, and especially against those who hide their malice behind the mask of virtue (79). Fortify my soul that pain will not break it. Mother of grace, teach me to live by God’s power (315).” “O Mary … a terrible sword has pierced Your holy soul. Except for God, no one knows of Your suffering. Your soul does not break; it is brave, because it is with Jesus. Sweet Mother, unite my soul to Jesus, because it is only then that I will be able to endure all trials and tribulations, and only in union with Jesus will my little sacrifices be pleasing to God. Sweetest Mother, continue to teach me about the interior life. May the sword of suffering never break me. O pure Virgin, pour courage into my heart and guard it (915).”12
1 The gate is also known as Medininkai Gate, as it led to the village of Medininkai, south of the city of Vilnius. The image of Our Lady of Mercy is one of the symbols of the city of Vilnius and is venerated by both Roman Catholic and Orthodox inhabitants.
2 Recompiled by SCTJM, “Merciful Mother: History of Our Lady of Ostrabrama,” Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary; available from http://www.piercedhearts.org/hearts_jesus_mary/apparitions/mother_of_mercy.html; Internet; accessed 9 November 2015.
4 Cf. University of Dayton International Marian Research Institute, “What is the meaning of the crescent moon that Mary is sometimes pictured standing upon?” http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/questions/yq/yq244.html; Internet; accessed 9 November 2015.
5 Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, “History of Lady of Ostrabrama.”
6 Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz (or The Last Foray in Lithuania), trans. George Rapall Noyes (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1917), 1. Digitized copy available from https://ia700401.us.archive.org/7/items/pantadeuszorlast00mick/pantadeuszorlast00mick.pdf; Internet; accessed 9 November 2015.
7 Grzegorz Górny and Janusz Rosikoń, Trust: In Saint Faustina’s Footsteps, trans. Stan Kacsprzak, assisted by Mary Murphy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 120-121.
8 Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, 3rd edition with revisions (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception, 2014), #313.
9 Górny and Rosikoń, Trust: In Saint Faustina’s Footsteps, 125.
10 Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary: Divine Mercy in my Soul., #89.
11 Ibid., #417.
12 Cf. Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, “History of Our Lady of Ostrabrama.” Quoted from the Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska.