Witnessing the Revived Sacredness

On the baroque altar of the Basilica of Visitation in Trakai, we can see the picture of Our Lady of Trakai. It is the oldest venerated picture in Lithuania. The first pilgrimage in the history of this country was organized here, led by the bishop of Vilnius. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, barefoot pilgrims stumbled before the picture, praying to the Merciful Mary to stop the plague that had been devastating people. Soon the epidemic was over. The fame of the picture grew and the title of the ‘The Protectress of the Great Duchy of Lithuania’ was attributed to Her. In 1718, the picture of Our Lady of Trakai was crowned by Pope Clement XI. 

Today, Trakai is one of the main tourist destinations in Lithuania.  It is a small town on a peninsula, surrounded by lakes, with two impressive medieval castles on the island and the mainland. People mostly come for the secular reasons of seeing those castles and enjoying the landscape. The church (from 2017, the basilica) was never closed during the Soviet period, but it vanished as a place of destination and as part of Trakai identity. The picture of Mary fell into oblivion and Trakai has lost aura of sacredness in religious sense.

I have been observing the phenomena of piety to Our Lady of Trakai for more than ten years. As I have lived in Trakai since my childhood, I can bear witness that I have discovered this picture mainly thanks to art historians and their articles. At the beginning, I was involved in the process of the revitalization of the cult unintentionally, as someone local who knew some history and was able to communicate it. The new Dean made me a kind of “propaganda agent”: I was leading excursions for pilgrims, bishops, giving lectures on Catholic radio. This role gave me chance to become a legitimate insider and make my own observations of what was been going on around the picture, how the transmission of the historical narrative changes attitudes towards this image. At the same time, new meanings of the place (Trakai town) and Christianity (mainly Catholicism) emerged to me and called for a qualitative approach.

The number of the people who really practice Christianity in their daily life in Lithuania is not substantial, however according to statistics most of Lithuanian citizens are Catholics, and probably they really feel like that. We could observe very heartfelt, enthusiastic reactions when Pope Francis I visited Lithuania in 2018. The picture of Our Lady of Trakai was present on the open stage in Kaunas city where the Pope conducted Mass. Several other even more famous pictures of Mary in Lithuania could have been taken there, but the Dean of Trakai managed to convince his fellow clergy and the bishops (I’ve heard this story from him) that it must be Our Lady of Trakai, the Protectress of Lithuania. One of the strong arguments was based on the important circumstance that the 300th anniversary of the coronation was being celebrated that year. 

So in 2018 it seemed that piety toward Our Lady of Trakai, its fame and glory, had been re-established. But in 2020, the situation looked somewhat different. When at the beginning of September coronavirus was devastating the whole world, I was observing the annual eight-day indulgence feast called Trakinės (The Birth of Virgin Mary). Talking to pilgrims and other believers who participated in the liturgy and listening to many homilies of different priests, I could see the weaknesses in the historical meaning of and the basic narrative about the picture. Historical narrative was poorly circulated during the sermons, nobody in litanies and intentions pronounced prayers, or attributed special power to this particular this image of Mary in being able to stop Covid-19. Nobody had recollected that centuries ago, Our Lady of Trakai several times saved the people from epidemics (so it was believed). Therefore, as a “former propagandist”, I was not satisfied with communication of the Church’s representatives, but as a researcher I was glad to verify my hypothesis that the cult of Our Lady of Trakai was, from its origins, genetically related to politics, to the idea of Lithuanian cultural identity and to a historical narrative. In my opinion, continuous communication of this narrative by the highest ranks of Church authorities is needed to make this cult work.

On the base of my recent fieldwork data, I would venture to provide some insight about the lack of vernacular piety toward this picture. THe common forms of religious behaviour can chiefly be seen. The reconstructed pilgrimage from Vilnius to Trakai, and the pretty recent (10 years) procession during Žolinė (Assumption of Mary), can be treated as an exceptional expression of piety toward this picture. Hence more data has to be collected to see how people feel about it, and what role the picture plays. Is it simply faithful behaviour toward Mary, represented in that picture of Trakai?

Local believers, knowing that I am undertaking research, asked me not to provide conclusions based on the data collected in 2020, as Catholics were afraid of the virus and not visiting shrines at that time. I shall take this remark into account. However, other people expressed their opinion that Trakai will not reach such heights as the other holy Catholic places, such as Šiluva or Žemaičių Kalvarija. We discussed the possibility that Trakai might grow as the site of private and delicate religiosity. And so my plan is to organize fieldwork during the indulgence feast of Trakinės and Žolinė at least three years in the row, comparing ethnographic notes and interviews, and witnessing how (or whether) the sacredness of Trakai is revived.