Vilnius – a capital of the Jagiellonians

In 1323, Grand Duke Gediminas ( 1316-41) moved the capital of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy to Vilnius. From the late thirteenth century the lower castle of Vilnius comprised a residence surrounded by protective walls where Grand Duke Gediminas probably resided and dictated his famous letter addressed to the monks, merchants, and craftsmen of European cities. Vilnius and its castle complex later became the main Lithuanian residence of the Gediminiden dynasty.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the ceremonies of the elevation to the rank of Grandduke of Lithuania took place here. Until the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Jagiellons often gathered at Vilnius to celebrate Christmas. Vilnius remained the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until the end of the eighteenth century, by which time the Polish-Lithuanian double monarchy had been divided among the neighboring states Russia, Prussia, and Austria and all but disappeared from the map of Europe.

But at the turn of the sixteenth century (c. 1490-1530), Vilnius was the growing capital of Lithuania where Gediminiden-Jagiellonian rulers of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania frequently resided and which witnessed a blossoming of late-Gothic and early Renaissance art.

Kasimir Jagiello (1440-1492, r. 1447-1492) and his wife Elisabeth of Hungary, the daughter of Emperor Albrecht II, frequently visited the city. They commissioned a chapel in the Cathedral of Vilnius as a mausoleum for their son Kasimir, who had died young and was later declared a saint.

The Grand ducal residence at Vilnius was elaborately decorated in High- Gothic style, and a large monastery of Franciscans Observantes was donated by the Jagiellons.

Alexander (r. 1492-1506) succeeded his father Kasimir as Grand Duke; in 1501 he was also crowned King of Poland. Alexander resided at Vilnius for a long time. He reformed the state and enlarged his residence, where he lived with a court of 1,500. Alexander Jagiello married Helen of Moscow at Vilnius and patronized the city’s marvelous late Gothic Church of St. Anna, probably intended as his mausoleum. He began to build a city wall to protect the Lithuanian capital.

After Alexander’s death, his brother Sigismund (1506-1548), later known as Sigismund the Old, became Grand Duke of Lithuania. Some time later, he was crowned King of Poland at Krakow. As King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Sigismund the Old was present at the Habsburg-Jagiellon double wedding celebrated in Vienna in 1515. He also introduced Renaissance art and architecture of the to the Lithuanian capital. He erected a splendid Renaissance residence in the lower castle of Vilnius and completed the city walls.

His wife, the Italian princess Bona Sforza, did much to spread Italian Renaissance culture in this region. In 1517 Sigismund and Bona were married at Vilnius by an ambassador of Emperor Maximilian I and Ferdinand I.

During the reign of Sigismund August, the son of Sigismund the Old and Bona Sforza, Vilnius and the Grand ducal residence turned into a regional center of Renaissance culture celebrated for its splendid artworks and treasures.

Vydas Dolinskas

© KHM-Museumsverband, Wissenschaftliche Anstalt öffentlichen Rechts.
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