The Lithuanians have red-hot fire to thank for the flamboyant Baroque buildings in their capital, Vilnius. While the rest of Europe had moved on to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, Vilnius was rebuilding its exquisite Baroque period architecture in the signature Vilnian-Baroque style.
The distinctively tall twin towers, elegant embellishments and extravagance of Italian masters remain as a testament to the heroic efforts by Polish architect, Johan Christoph Glaubitz, to rebuild the romantic façades of a city ravaged repeatedly by fire.
So successful was Glaubitz, that Vilnius remains the largest Baroque city north of the Alps to this day – a reputation it continued to uphold despite decades of austere Soviet rule.
Whether you’re a lover of Baroque period architecture or simply someone who admires a tale of resilience, the Baroque façades of Vilnius are enduring gifts, not even their Lithuanian sponsors all those centuries ago could have imagined.
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The origins of Vilnius’ Baroque period architecture
The Baroque story of Vilnius starts as early as 1608, with the construction of the Church of St. Casimir, the patron saint of Vilnius. Ironically, Casimir’s characteristic piety is not reflected in the detailed flourishes and opulent artistry of the church that still bears his name today.
It is one of several examples of Vilnius churches whose construction was funded by wealthy Lithuanian nobles who hoped their generosity would earn them favour with the church. Consequently, there are few parts of Vilnius Old Town from which you will not see a church spire, cross or dome, and many of these are indeed from the Baroque era.
Kickstart your Baroque sightseeing in Vilnius by walking through the Gate of Dawn. Spin on your heels 360 degrees and you’ll see the Church of St. Theresa, Basilian Gate and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit – all within close proximity and all fine examples of Baroque period architecture.
White stucco angels, saints and demons jostle for their spot on the extravagant exteriors of these iconic Vilnius Baroque buildings. These can only be admired up close as the medieval street network of Vilnius which remains to this day makes it impossible to see beyond the curve in the city’s winding narrow streets. Their real Baroque treasures, however, are revealed inside.
Unmissable Baroque buildings to view
You could spend days admiring the ornate façades of Vilnius and barely scratch the surface. Amidst the sea of red roofs that characterise the cityscape, you’ll find our favourite Baroque buildings…
1. Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
Just like a Christmas present, this gift is best enjoyed unwrapped. The 17th-century Church of St. Peter and St. Paul may look uncharacteristically plain on the outside for a Baroque building, despite its signature twin towers. Its interiors, however, are the stuff of Baroque heaven. Don’t even try to count the statues, murals and reliefs that number in their thousands. Simply admire them, the impressive chandelier which depicts Noah’s Ark and the paintings of Mary and the Vilnius Plague.
2. Church of St. Catherine
The dusty pink façades and interior of the Church of St. Catherine have enjoyed extensive restoration since Lithuania regained its independence. A beautiful example of late Baroque period architecture, the Church of St. Catherine lies at the heart of the Old Town. Throughout its history, it has been used as a church, monastery and even a warehouse during the Soviet era. Today, the extraordinary acoustics of its central nave has made it a celebrated concert hall, hosting cultural events, musical concerts and choral performances.
3. Church of St. Raphael, the Archangel
The spires of the Church of St. Archangel Raphael overlook the Neris River, just a short walk from the Old Town.
Built in the 18th century, the church and adjacent monastery provided sanctuary to monks of the Jesuit order, which was established several centuries before to teach the children of poor families.
Throughout its history, however, it has also acted as an army barracks and military warehouse, until it was returned to the custody of the Catholic church in the mid-19th century.
Noteworthy for visitors is its St. Raphael the Archangel painting, which adorns its high altar and the nearby shrine which houses a statue of Christ carrying the Cross. This shrine was built in the early 18th century during the Great Northern War plague outbreak in Vilnius.
4. Church of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist
Among the most exquisite examples of Baroque period architecture in Vilnius, is the Church of St. Johns and its adjacent bell tower. Look across the cityscape of Vilnius and you will see this bell tower rising imposingly above the sea of red roofs of the Old Town.
Like many of its counterparts, the church has had many ‘jobs’ since it was built in the 15th century – a university complex, a theatre venue, a warehouse and even a museum. Completely rebuilt after the devastation of a fire in the 18th century, this is also one of the churches that rose from the ashes thanks to Glaubitz.
Since then, however, Nazi occupation and Soviet rule both conspired to destroy its sumptuous Baroque architecture. Today, what remains are the 18 sculptures in the central nave, 12 of which depict Saint John.
5. Church of St. Theresa
The Church of St. Theresa is one of the most viewed Baroque buildings in Vilnius. This is thanks to its proximity to the Gate of Dawn and the fact that it remains one of the earliest Baroque buildings in Lithuania.
Built in the mid 17th century, the Church of St. Theresa was modelled on the Carmelites’ Santa Maria Della Scalla church in Rome. In addition to its seriously impressive high altar, this Baroque building retains the expensive construction materials that were used to build it – Swedish sandstone, marble and granite.
6. Church of All Saints
The Carmelites who settled in the Church of All Saints in the 17th century could not have imagined that this beautiful Baroque-style church would eventually become an escape route for persecuted Jews in World War II several centuries later. But it did.
A tunnel connecting the ornate Baroque building with the sewers leading to the Jewish Ghetto served to save several lives during that time. The church was also home to a museum of folk art during the Soviet era.
7. Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit
Last, but not least is the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit, built on the same site where an ancient wooden church once stood.
Much like the other churches in Vilnius, the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit has served several purposes. It’s difficult to imagine its flamboyant Baroque period architecture being used for any purpose other than revering a higher power. But, in the 19th century, it was used as a prison, thanks to the Tsarist rulers of the time.
Today, visitors can admire its playful rococo ornamentation, lavishly decorated altars and pulpit, and its many Baroque frescoes.
More mesmerising still is the labyrinthine vault that lies beneath its floors housing the remains of hundreds of wealthy Vilnius residents, some of whom are naturally mummified.
The Baroque buildings of Vilnius are a distinctive to nowhere else in the Baltic states. For a taste of Italy in Eastern Europe, there simply is nothing else like it.
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Have you visited Vilnius? Are you an admirer of Baroque period architecture? Share your favourite Baroque buildings in Vilnius and beyond with your fellow travellers in our comments below…