The painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy of Aušros Vartai (the Gate of Dawn) is the only one in Lithuania so widely known for miraculous recoveries and other graces and visited by pilgrims from many surrounding countries. The Blessed Virgin Mary of Aušros Vartai is considered a guardian of Lithuania as well as the symbol of concord. Four peoples and two religious confessions come together to worship her: Lithuanians, Poles, Byelorussians and Russians, Catholics and Orthodox.
The chapel is arranged over the former Eastern Gates of the ancient defensive City wall of Vilnius. Now, when the city has expanded, the chapel and the gates are in the center. Nearby there is a Catholic church of St. Teresa and an Orthodox monastery of The Holy Spirit.
Terrified by the Tatar invasion in 1503 citizens of Vilnius asked Aleksandras, the Grand Duke of Lithuania for a permission to fence the town. The stonewall had defensive towers and five gates. It was finished in 1522. The Gate of Dawn with the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary then was in the most dangerous eastern part of the wall.
The Carmelite monks who established themselves nearby the Gate began to take care of the picture in 1626. In 1671, seventeen miracles were already confirmed under a vow and documented in the chronicles.
In 1702 Vilnius was occupied by the Swedes. They forbade to venerate the picture publicly and to gather in the street in front of the Gate. In the battle trying to regain the Gate, a bullet was put through the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Since 1671 the picture was placed in a wooden chapel on the Gate. The chapel was destroyed in the Vilnius fire of 1715. The painting however was saved by the Carmelites and returned to a new brick chapel four years later.
Under the order of the tsarist government the wall of the town was pulled down in 17991802. Still due to the respect to the picture, honored by both Catholics and Orthodox, the Gate of Dawn was left.
Before World War II liturgies were celebrated in the Gate of Dawn chapel from sunrise until noon, and in the evening a litany and hymns were sung in praise of Mary. During the services not only the chapel but the entire street used to be filled with worshipers. Pilgrims were especially numerous on the third Sunday after Easter, Whitsuntide, and Nov. 16, the feast of the Mother of Mercy. Men, who passed by the Gate of Dawn removed their hats; this old custom was observed even by non-Catholics.
During Soviet times many pilgrims from Byelorussia, who were deprived of all of their sanctuaries, used to come and visit the Gate.
On September 4, 1993 the Pope John Paul II prayed the rosary in Aušros Vartai. He told he had this desire since he prayed in front of the Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Aušros Vartai in the Lithuanian Chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican right after his inauguration.
The highest Russian Orthodox and Lithuanian Catholic hierarchs Alexy II, the Patriarch of Moscow and the whole Russia and Audrys Juozas Bačkis, Archbishop of archdiocese of Vilnius prayed together in Aušros Vartai on July 28, 1997. They encouraged couple thousand believers who had gathered in front of the Gate to live in the spirit of Christian love, peace and concord.
Many visitors as well as residents of Vilnius like to come and pray at Aušros Vartai.
The day of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy is celebrated on November 16. Devotions, lasting for a week around this date attract many pilgrims from all over the country.
The painting of the Gate of Dawn
The picture is one of five crowned pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lithuania. But it is the only one where Mary is depicted without a Baby Jesus.
According to tradition, two paintings were exposed on the Gate of Dawn when it was built. Facing outward was the picture of the Savior, facing in toward the city, a picture of the Blessed Virgin. The grandeur and monumentality of the latter leads to the idea that the picture was destined to be looked at from distance and that it was painted specially for the gate of the town according to the European tradition of the time. A silver garment covers all but the face and hands of the Virgin, who is portrayed with her arms crossed on her chest. The crowned head is inclined toward the right and surrounded by a halo with rays.
The public veneration of the picture started in 1655-1661 during the war with the Russians. Citizens of Vilnius asked the Our Lady for intercession. It is believed that at nights they used to see the image of Mary of Aušros Vartai in the sky over the town. In gratitude for guardianship, in 1671, the jewelers of Vilnius made a splendid silver garment for the picture. During the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century everyone, even people of another belief passing the Gates had to take off their hats.
Since 1765 the picture has been honored in the songs.
The painting of the Virgin of the Gate of Dawn became known for its alleged miraculousness in the 17th century. 17 miracles, sworn to under oath were recorded between 1671-1761. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church refrained from comment on the matter throughout the 17th century. But from the 18th century both bishops of Vilnius and the Popes acknowledged the paintings miraculous character. In 1773 Pope Clement XIV granted an indulgence to worshipers at the Gate of Dawn. In 1927 Pope Pius XI allowed the painting to be solemnly crowned and granted it the title of Mary, Mother of Mercy.
The fame of the miraculous painting spread, largely because of the efforts of the Carmelites and Jesuits. The Vilnius Academy, a Jesuit institution, designated the Virgin of the Gate of Dawn its guardian and patron in 1676.