University, Courtyards, Halls and interiors, The Church of St. John and the belfry

Some faculties and hostels are situated in other areas – in Naujamiestis, Antakalnis and elsewhere

University, Courtyards, Halls and interiors, The Church of St. John and the belfryUniversity

The old buildings of the university occupy a large block limited by Pilies, sv. Jono, Universiteto, Skapo streets and Daukan- to Square. Some faculties and hostels are situated in other areas – in Naujamiestis, Antakalnis and elsewhere. However, the entire history of the university is associated with this old town campus, which presently houses the rector’s office, library and lecture rooms. The formation of the university ensemble started in 1568, when Bishop Walerian Protasewicz bought a two-storey Gothic house, later occupied by the Jesuit College. In the course of time 12 buildings emerged in that area, each with several wings and situated around 12 courtyards of varying size and shape. It is a maze where one can roam for a long time and discover ever-new interesting details.


It is decorated with arcades, and on the east closed by the magnificent facade of the Church of St. John and a mighty belfry. Its harmonious space reminds one of an Italian Renaissance square, though the courtyard combines elements of three styles – Renaissance Mannerism, Baroque and Classicism. The northern and western buildings of the courtyard date from the late 16th cent.; thus the courtyard itself, having been formed in the 1st half of the 17th cent., was called the Academy Courtyard. A Classical two-storey building with an audience chamber in its southern part was built in 1816 and now includes a representational entry to the university. On the facade of the Church of St. John memorial plaques to the first rectors Piotr Skarga and Jakub Wujek, and under the arcades – plaques with names of famous professors are set up. On the west side there is a passage to the Observatory Courtyard, and on the northern side – a stairway to the Sarbievijus Courtyard. On the first floor of the north and west wall, 18th cent. frescoes representing Bishop Walerian Protasewicz, great hetman John Carol Chodkiewicz and King August III and Stanislaus August Poniatowski were uncovered in 1977–79 and 1995.

The Observatory Courtyard is ringed with enclosed arcades alongside all three storeys (open arcades did not suit the northern climate of Vilnius). Its ambience is much more intimate and idyllic than that of the Great Courtyard. In the north stands a building of the old observatory with twin cylindrical towers covered with small cupolas. This monument of early Baroque was designed by Martin Knackfuss (1782–88). The building is decorated with a picturesque frieze with signs of the Zodiac and two Latin inscriptions: Addidit antiquo virtus nova lumina coelo (Courage gave new light to the old sky) and Haec domus Uraniae est: curae procul este profanae! Temnitur hic humilis tellus: hinc itur ad astra (This is the house of Urania [i.e. the Muse of astronomy]: away, daily concerns! Here the humble earth is despised; from here to the stars). A plaque with a Polish inscription commemorating an anniversary of the Educational Committee is set up below.

The oldest building of the university dating back to the 16th cent. a nd bought for the collegium by Bishop Protasewicz in 1568 is situated on the west side of the courtyard (holding a memorial plaque to Martynas Pocobutas). It has been renovated, and on its other side facing Universiteto St. Gothic walls were uncovered in 1979.

The Library (Central) Courtyard is open and connected with Simono Daukanto Square. Like other courtyards, until the early 19th cent. it was closed, and in 1825 in the process of restructuring the Governor General’s office (now the Presidential Palace) that blocked the street, part of the university buildings were pulled down. In the south of the courtyard stands the Central Palace of the university built in the late 16th cent.; the third floor was built on in 1752–66 according to astronomer Tomas Zebrauskas’ (Tomasz Zebrowski) project as a decorative facade of the astronomical observatory with a tower. Above the windows of the observatory planetary symbols are set up, and between the windows astronomical devices are painted (1772). The loggia of the building holds a statue of poet Kristijonas Donelaitis (sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas, 1964). On the opposite side of the courtyard, a memorial plaque to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, who attended artist Jonas Rustemas’ (Jan Rustem) studio at the university in 1829–31, is set up.

In the north the Library Courtyard connects with the Dauksos Courtyard encircled with late Classical buildings. The apartment of the professor of the painting chair Jonas Rustemas was once located in this courtyard.

From the Library Courtyard an arched passageway leads to the Sarbievijaus Courtyard. Its oldest southern building with massive two-storey buttresses was built in the 16th cent. and has underwent few changes. The courtyard is dominated by the western building: decorated with arches and picturesque tiled buttresses, it was built in the 17th–18th cent. and renovated in the 1st half of the 19th cent. It housed the parsonage of the Church of St. John; today on the ground floor one finds a bookshop “Littera” decorated with frescoes by Antanas Kmieliauskas (1978), which represent professors and graduates of the old university and symbols of various sciences. On the west side of the courtyard a memorial plaque to Motiejus Kazimieras Sarbievijus is set up. The surrounding buildings house the Philological Faculty and the Centre of Lithuanian Studies. A small pool and a birch-tree render a somewhat melancholic mood to the courtyard.

From the Sarbievijaus Courtyard one can walk to the Daukanto Courtyard. On its south side a nice detail of a Renaissance attic with double arches supported by high pilasters is found. A passageway in the north leads to the smallest Courtyard of Arcades renovated in 1974, a passageway in the east – to the Mickiewicz Courtyard surrounded by two-storey buildings; a Gothic facade of one of them facing Pilies St. (No. 13) is renovated. It is traditionally assumed that the first-year student Adam Mickiewicz lived in one of those buildings, and later it became a gathering place of the Philomats.

Two neo-Classical buildings ring the narrow Courtyard of the Printing House. A Gothic house that used to stand on this site was given to the Academy in the early 17th cent. and a formerly established printing house was moved in. In 1805 the university assigned the printing house to Jozef Zawadski who published the first books by Adam Mickiewicz. In addition to the printing house, Zawadski also ran a bookshop. In 1828 tsarist authorities forced Zawadski to move out of the university building. At sv. Jono St. No. 2/1 (adjacent to the printing house, by Universiteto St.) in 1687 the Jesuits ran a pharmacy.

Halls and interiors

The most interesting part of the university is the library with its many halls of high artistic value. The oldest and most impressive of these halls is the Smuglewicz Hall appointed in the 1st half of the 17th cent. It is situated on the ground floor of the eastern part of the Library (Central) Courtyard. Originally it housed a refectory, and later a hall for public lectures and a library. Franciszek Smuglewicz decorated it in 1802–04, and afterwards it became a university audience chamber. When the university was closed down, the hall held the Museum of Antiquities, and later the Vilnius Public Library. Early mural paintings were renovated in 1929. They consist of a Baroque multi-figure composition “The Holy Virgin Mary, Patron of the Jesuits” (17th cent.) in the middle part of the vaults, and Classical ornaments and busts representing men of science and art of ancient Greece painted by Franciszek Smuglewicz. The hall holds a permanent exhibition of early manuscripts and books containing many rare items, e.g. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus (On the Revolution of Celestial Bodies, 1543) – according to a legend, this particular copy was given to Copernicus in his deathbed, – as well as the Catechism by Martynas Mazvydas (the first Lithuanian book, 1547) and others.

Above the Smuglewicz Hall is the general reading room of the library that also dates from the times of the old academy, and on the 2nd floor – a Classical hall, so-called professors’ reading room, appointed by Michael Schulz and Karol Podczaszyfski in the 19th cent.

The Lelewel Hall, constituting the top part of the former 18th cent. rococo chapel, also belongs to the library. Of its early decor, two angel figures and a detail of floral ornament have survived. The vaults are decorated with mural paintings by Jerzy Hoppen (1930). Part of the private library of the famous historian Joachim Lelewel is held here. In the White Hall, an early Classical (partly Baroque) portal with relief portraits of King Stanislaus August Poniatowski and the founder of the observatory Elzbieta Puzynina should be mentioned. It is adjoined by the 18th cent. observatory decorated with symbols of constellations and other paintings. Antique astronomical devices are held there. From the Great Courtyard one can reach a Classical audience chamber with Corinthian columns designed and decorated by Schulz and Podczaszyfski.

In 1929 busts of university professors created by Kazimierz Jelski (early 19th cent.) were moved to it from the Smuglewicz hall: five of them remained, others were recreated by Jonas Jagela in 1978. Underneath the audience chamber is a students’ cafe, and nearby – a memorial plaque for the founder of the university, King Stephen Batory. The Zniadecki (Students’ Theatre) Hall with a wooden gallery and a ceiling decorated with coffers is located on the 2nd floor. It belonged to the theatre since the middle of the 18th cent.; in 1919–78 it held the university assembly hall. In the Daukanto Courtyard, on the 2nd floor, one can see a Classical interior of architect Schulz’s apartment.

There are many contemporary mural paintings, created by Lithuanian artists mainly on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the university. The lobby of the Philological Faculty boasts the images of 9 muses and their mother Mnemosyne executed using the sgraffiti technique (art. Rimtautas Gibavicius, 1970). The reading room of the same faculty is decorated with a fresco entitled “Martynas Mazvydas in Ragaine” (art. sarunas simulynas, 1969). In the lobby of the eastern building of the Mickiewicz Courtyard there is a granite mosaic representing ancient Lithuanian and Prussian gods (art. Vitolis Trusys, 1978). Donelaitis’ reading room holds paintings on the theme of Kristijonas Donelaitis and his poem The Seasons executed with tempera on wood (art. Vytautas Valius, 1979).

The Rectorate Hall is decorated with frescoes by artist Antanas Kmieliauskas (1979–82). Particularly interesting is the interior of the Centre of Lithuanian Studies in the Sarbievijaus Courtyard: its walls and vaults are covered in original frescoes on ethnographic and mythological themes entitled “The Seasons” (art. Petras Repsys, 1976–85).

The Church of St. John and the belfry

The construction of the church started soon after Lithuania’s Christianization (1387) and was finished in 1426. Originally it was Gothic: features of this style are still distinct in its interior (three naves of equal length with 14 slender eight-plane pillars), pointed-arch windows and massive buttresses. They built a wide Gothic presbytery with a passage around the altar. In 1738–49 the church was reconstructed according to a project by architect Jan Krzysztof Glaubitz in a distinct late Baroque style. During the 1827–28 reconstruction, architect Karol Podczaszyfski destroyed the bulk of the sumptuous Baroque interior – nearly 3,000 carts with splinters of altars, sculptures and stucco works were taken to a dump; chapels suffered the least.

The Baroque facade designed by Glaubitz, of a symmetrical composition, rolling forms, reminiscent of a huge organ, leaves one an extraordinary impression. Its decorativeness is enhanced by cartouches, volutes, statues, metal vases and crosses. The facade is tapering, its relief gets lighter upwards thanks to a chiaroscuro effect. Nearby stands a five-tier, 63 m high belfry of a square plan (one of the highest buildings in the old town), holding decorative vases and a cross, 6,2 m high, wrought by Vilnius masters. The facade was created in the 18th cent., and the belfry – in the late 16th or early 17th cent. and heightened later; it has both Baroque and Renaissance features. The pediment of the back facade of the church facing Pilies St. also has very expressive forms (it can be best seen from the courtyard of the medical college, or Slowacki’s house). It is also attributed to late Baroque. Underneath an original memorial plaque – an epitaph to the Chreptowicz family – is erected (1759). Above the plaque a lar ge cross with a human-size gilded figure of Christ used to hang.

The central focus of the church interior is a composition of 10 presbytery altars, unique in Lithuania and the Baltic countries (before Podczaszyfski’s “reconstruction” there were as many as 22 altars in the presbytery and naves!). It is a virtuoso Baroque work (18th cent.), called “optical music” by the art historian Mikalojus Vorobjovas. The altars are counterbalanced by the organ choir with a rolling Baroque parapet. The organ of the Church of St. John was the most famous one in Lithuania, but in the Soviet period it was destroyed; presently it has been restored. In the central nave at the pillars stand 18 sculptures, 12 of which represent various saints bearing the name of John (2nd half of the 18th cent.) Of the chapels, the most expressive are St. Anne’s and the Ogifski Chapels (both on the north side of the church).

St. Anne’s Chapel is noted for a sumptuous rococo portal made of red marble and stucco; plated in polychrome, gold and silver, St. Victor’s altar in its central part holds the Crucifix (mid-18th cent.) surrounded by a wine tree-shaped relief work. The Ogifski Chapel seems to be the most magnificent one. Its portal is partly Baroque, with explicit features of Classicism. The portals of both chapels were created by Glaubitz. The Baroque altars of St. Barbara’s and Piasecki Chapels are quite elaborate. The Ogifski Chapel contains a fresco entitled “The Life of Jews in the Wilderness”, and the Chapel of the Solace of the Virgin Mary – frescoes depicting the life of St. Stanislaus Kostka. The naves and the sacristy are also covered in mural paintings. All frescoes in the Church of St. John date from the 18th cent. and were uncovered and restored in 1970’s. Stained glass windows were produced in the 2n d half of the 19th – early 20th cent. in Paris and Riga. Mention should be made of the wooden Crucifix (16th cent.) supposedly donated by Piotr Skarga, Baroque pews and confessionals ornamented with carvings and inlay, and a Baroque brass bell in the belfry (1676).

The church contains many memorial monuments: to Hieronim Strojnowski (sculpt. Karol Podczaszyfski and Kazimierz Jelski, 1827), Adam Mickiewicz (sculpt. Piotr Stryjefski and Marceli Gujski, 1899), Antoni Edward Odyniec (sculpt. Jan Rudnicki, 1901), Ludwik Kondratowicz-Wladyslaw Syrokomla (sculpt. Pius Welofski and Petras Rimsa, 1908), Tadeusz Kozciuszko (sculpt. Antanas Vivulskis, 1917), Konstantinas Sirvydas (sculpt. Juozas Kedainis, 1979), Simonas Daukantas (sculpt. Gediminas Jokubonis, 1979) and others.


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