The Shroud of Turin. The Great Wall of China. The Stones of Venice. The Whore of Babylon. You’ve heard of them all. Maybe you’ve even seen all of these treasures of world civilization.
But I’ll bet you’ve never seen, or even heard of, the frescoes in the courtyard of the Bernardine monastery at Tytuvėnai, a small town in the Kelmė district of Lithuania. And maybe you should get on a plane right away, while they’re still in decent enough condition to fully appreciate. I was there on May 1—ironically enough, since May Day is still a workers’ holiday here in Lithuania.
Here’s the micro-level background. I have a colleague, Jonas Jasaitis, in the public administration department at Šiauliai University who heads up something called the Rural Development Centre. His English is excellent, mainly because he spent eight years in the United States—most of them in Cleveland, where he edited a Lithuanian language newspaper. Jonas wanted to show me some of the unheralded treasures of the Lithuanian countryside. He and I, along with the leader of a residential community in suburban Šiauliai—her name is Zita Kilniene—spent a day on the road, and our very first stop was Tytuvėnai.
And here’s the macro-level background. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to fully embrace Christianity, and by the time it did, the Reformation was on the march in Germany and elsewhere. In Tytuvėnai, the first Christian church was established in 1555, very late by European standards. It was the Counter-Reformation that finally sealed the deal. Plans for a new church in the baroque style were drawn up by a local aristocrat in 1614, with construction beginning in 1618. The church was completed in 1633, and in the ensuing century and a half a Bernardine monastery was added. In the late 18th century, a courtyard was built to enclose the church and monastery ensemble, and frescoes were inserted into the niches of the courtyard’s arcade.
The Tytuvėnai church is being restored, a massive effort given the devastating effects—not of a twentieth-century war, for once—but of fire. The monastery and its courtyard will be restored also, which is why you need to see the late-eighteenth-century frescoes while they retain the patina of authenticity.
See the photos above. #1 shows the restored side of the baroque church; the scaffolding is protecting work underway on the façade. #2 is a photo of Jonas and Zita on site. #3 shows the baroque façade and the monastery courtyard. #4 is a shot of what I thought was the most remarkable of the frescoes, one that is reminiscent of some of Lorenzetti di Ambroggio’s murals in the Siena Town Hall (photo #5).
As always, the Jewish presence in Lithuania constitutes a barely perceptible parallel universe. There was an important Jewish community in Tytuvėnai until the local rabbi, Yaakov Kamenetsky, emigrated to the United States in 1937. Now, of course, the Jewish experience must be regarded as local history tragically and irretrievably lost.
Thank you, Jonas and Zita, for a memorable day in the Lithuanian countryside.