The Icon of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn (Lithuanian: Aušros Vartų Dievo Motina, Russian: Ostrobramskaya Icon, other names of the icon in English: Our Lady of Vilnius, Ostrobramska icon, Lady of Ostrabrama) is one of the most revered in the Christian world. It is located in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, some 2 hours 41 minutes from Minsk according to GPS. However, neither the distance nor the wait at the border can stop the pious pilgrims wishing to bow to the legendary image and pray before it.
How did the Icon of the Gate of Dawn appear in Vilnius? Today it is difficult to restore the events that took place in our part of the world more than 500 years ago. There are several versions of the icon's origin.
According to one, The Grand Duke of Lithuania Algirdas brought this holy image to Vilna (the ancient name of Vilnius) from Korsun (Chersonesus) as a gift to Princess Maria of Vitebsk, his first wife. This assumption arose because the original name of the icon was Korsunskaya (Our Lady of Korsun).
Algirdas, Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1345 to 1377
According to another version, the Byzantine emperor sent the icon to Algirdas after he received holy baptism. Princess Uliana of Tver, the second wife of the Lithuanian ruler, donated the image to the Orthodox Trinity Monastery founded at the burial site of the three Vilna martyrs Anthony, John and Eustathius, whose memory is celebrated on April 14 (27). Since the fourteenth century, the Orthodox believers have developed a tradition to solemnly honor the Icon at the Gate of Dawn on the same day.
According to the annals of the 15th century, the icon was kept in the gate chapel. Thus every traveller coming to the city was entering under the protection of the Mother of God.
The city gates in Vilnius were then located near the Holy Spirit Church. The icon's location shows that it was especially loved by the Orthodox people. The tradition to place major miracle-working relics on main city gates goes far back in time.
For example, the Kremlin's Resurrection Gates have housed the renowned Iberian Gate-keeper for centuries, while the Theotokos of Bogolyubovo was placed on the St. Barbara Gates. The icons overlooked the roads leading to the city, as if guarding the inhabitants from unwelcome guests and ushering pious people with the motherly blessing of the Theotokos.
Frans Hogenberg (1535-1590). Plan of Vilna, 1576, from the book "St. John's Church" by V. Drema.
In 1498 Vilna was going through an unquiet period when it was threatened by Tatar attacks. By order of the ruler, the townspeople erected stone walls around the city and built a chapel with a tower over the new gate. The Korsun Icon of the Mother of God was placed on the outer wall of the chapel, facing those entering Vilna. The city dwellers called this gate (brama) the “sharp” (ostry) end of the city, hence the icon's name Ostrobramskaya.
In 1483, the Polish King Casimir IV issued a decree prohibiting the restoration of dilapidated Orthodox churches, as well as the construction of new ones. In the 16th century, this decree was still in effect. In 1596, after the Union of Brest was signed, the Holy Trinity Monastery became a Uniate community. Orthodox Christians transferred the image to the St. Nicholas Church on Bolshaya Street.
In 1609, the clergy of the Uniate monastery demanded that the image be returned. Two days later, on July 31, 1609, by order of the royal authorities, the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church was also transferred to the Uniates.
On August 1, the Uniate Metropolitan Hypatius Pociej venerated the image of the Mother of God of the Gate of Dawn in St. Nicholas Church and ordered that the icon be immediately delivered to the Holy Trinity Monastery.
Metropolitan Hypatius Pociej
Once again, the image was placed in the Gate Chapel, becoming the property of the Basilian Uniate Order of the Holy Trinity Monastery.
Yet it was not for long. Soon the Icon of the Gate of Dawn was transferred to the Carmelite order, which had recently appeared in Vilna. This order of Discalced Carmelites arrived in the Trinity Monastery in the 8th century to educate the brethren, following the negotiations between the Uniate Metropolitan and Pope Urban VIII. The missionaries were given the newly erected church of St. Teresa.
Having taken possession of the Icon, they built a new chapel for it in 1671, since the old one had fallen into disrepair. The image was now on the inside wall, with the holy face of the Virgin looking at the St. Teresa church and the city. The fire of May 1714 brought much trouble and destruction. The old wooden chapel at the Gate of Dawn burned down. Thus the icon was saved by the Carmelites.
For the subsequent 13 years, the image was kept in the church of St. Teresa and revered as a great shrine. The latter faсt is illustrated by the traditional solemn divine services in honor of the icon lasting up to forty hours.
Church of St. Teresa in Vilnius
However, the strife surrounding the revered icon continued to rage. In 1744, a new stone chapel appeared at the Gate of Dawn.
The Uniate monks of the Holy Trinity Monastery, who had owned the icon since 1609, could not accept the fact that it had become the property of the Carmelites and began a lawsuit for its return. Eventually the matter escalated to the Pope. It was decided that the icon should remain under the jurisdiction of the monastery, which was closer to the Gates. The Carmelites won by several tens of meters.
As a result of the third partition of Poland in 1795, Vilna became part of the Russian Empire. In the 19th century, the Carmelite monastery with the church of St. Teresa and the Gate Chapel was turned to the Orthodox jurisdiction, following the emperor's order. The Carmelite monastery was closed; the church of St. Teresa became a parish and remained with the Catholics, along with the Gate Chapel and the miraculous icon of the Mother of God.
The icon remained in a Catholic church in part thanks to the efforts of the Orthodox Metropolitan Joseph (Semashko) who petitioned Emperor Nicholas I for it. He asked that the icon not be taken away from the Catholics, who had protected, rescued and revered it for so many centuries.
Metropolitan Joseph (Semashko)
Metropolitan Joseph convinced the emperor that the Orthodox would still continue to pray in front of the image and worship the Icon of the Gate of Dawn. Notably, the words of the prayer “More honourable than the cherubim”, written in Slavic script, were still preserved on the icon since ancient times.
Today, the Ostrobramskaya Icon of the Mother of God belongs to the Catholics. However, Orthodox Christians from around the globe continue to flock here to bow to the miraculous image.
A staircase leads to the Gate Chapel, where the Icon of the Mother of God is kept. It is not uncommon however, to see worshippers kneeling right on the paving stone in front of the Gate Chapel prior to entering it. The humble face of the Mother of God can be seen from the street through the chapel window.
The image is in a sealed case, where the required temperature and humidity are maintained.
Icon of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn
There is no consensus as to which tradition underlies the painting of the image. Some believe that its iconography is based on the Western European style while others claim it to be a copy of an ancient Byzantine image, a part of which (the image of the archangel Gabriel) may have been lost.
According to some sources, the "Tenderness" icon of the Mother of God inherited by St. Seraphim of Sarov from his mother was an early copy of the Ostrobramskaya image.
“Tenderness” Icon of the Mother of God at the Holy Trinity Seraphim - Diveyevo Monastery
The Mother of God is depicted on the icon at the moment of receiving the Good News from the Archangel Gabriel. This explains the absence of the Divine Infant in the icon. Her countenance expresses obedience to God's will, peace, chastity, and gentleness. Her gaze is downcast. Hands are folded crosswise on the chest. This is the posture in which every Christian today receives the Holy Mysteries.
The silver crescent moon shines under the gaze of the Holy Virgin. On Her head is a crown of two tiers, this duality being a symbol of Her dominion on earth and in heaven.
The icon was crowned* according to Catholic tradition (*Coronation of icons is a particular rite performed over revered icons in the Catholic Church) on July 2, 1927, with the blessing of Pope Pius XI. The original crowns were then replaced with golden ones. Subsequently, the golden crowns disappeared and were replaced by ones made of silver and gilded copper. In 2018, the image was again decorated with gold.
The face of the Mother of God seems to be radiating rays, and her halo is illuminated by sunlight. This looks as if a multitude of stars are shining around the halo, as it were in the sky.
The silver crescent contains words of gratitude from those who have received help upon their requests, and felt the love and care of the Mother of God. This is a gift from believers who prayed before the icon two hundred years ago.
By the early 18th century, the icon was covered with precious gilded silver plating showing only the face and palms of the Mother of God. Today the icon remains under the same cover created by medieval artisans.
The figures of Saints Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary, stand to the right and left of the icon. The chapel also holds votive offerings from Christians who have received help. The number of offerings is about 8000. Even more donations from grateful supplicants witnessing miracles through their prayers to the Mother of God are stored in the treasury.
Throughout the centuries of the icon's existence, there have been innumerable miracles through the prayers of Christians of various denominations coming before the Mother of God.
According to Catholic tradition, Christians bring to the chapel symbols of their healings and fulfilled requests. Here you will see silver pendants in the form of hearts, prayerfully folded palms and human silhouettes – all evidence of help received.
Votive offerings in the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn
The Orthodox usually donate precious jewellery in gratitude for their prayers being heard. All these offerings speak only of the glory of God and are needed, of course, not for the holy relic, but for the people to express their feelings.
People often pray to the Icon of the Gate of Dawn for children – their birth, health, welfare, and help in studies. There are known cases of missing persons miraculously returning home after prayers in front of this miraculous icon.
The Image of the Gate of Dawn is also believed to help those wishing to start a family. This is evidenced by one of the crowns that adorned the image in 2018. The crown was made entirely of donated gold, including 184 wedding rings brought by newly-weds.
Chapel of the Gates of Dawn in Vilnius
Anyone praying before this sacred Christian relic can sense that it is the Blessed Virgin Herself who hearkens to all those who sincerely wish to be saved. She guides those who are in error, instructs those who have gone astray, softens the hearts of the bitter, and comforts those who are grieving. Her motherly love is infinite and her grace is immeasurable.
Her holy face is bowed, and Her gaze is meekly lowered...She is obedient to Her destiny, as She heeds the voice of the Archangel Gabriel. Whether you are in Vilnius, Minsk, Moscow or New York, She calls you to follow Her example: love God with all your heart and with all your soul.
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