our lady at the gate of dawn

Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, in the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius, Lithuania, was most likely completed around 1630. Of the five crowned pictures of the Blessed Virgin in Lithuania,  Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn is the only one depicted without the infant Jesus.

Historically displayed above the Vilnius city gate; it was intended to ward off attacks and bless passing travelers. It soon became known as miraculous and a chapel was built to house it in 1671. Around this time, as is often the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the painting was covered in expensive and elaborate silver and gold clothes leaving only the face and hands visible.

More and more, in my study of the Black Madonna, I find the excessive draping and ornamentation feels suffocating, as if her true essence is too powerful, too direct, and must be muted.

In this case, however, there is something about the metal, the silver and gold, encasing and enshrining the painting that speaks to me.

Legend tells that in 1702, when Vilnius was captured by the Swedish army, Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn came to her people's rescue. At dawn, the heavy iron city gates of the gate fell crushing and killing four Swedish soldiers. After this, the Lithuanian Army successfully counter-attacked near the gate.

In the following centuries, her following grew stronger and Our Lady became an important part of religious life in Vilnius. This inspired many copies in Lithuania, Poland, and diaspora communities worldwide.

In 1761, the monk Hilarion published a book enumerating 17 miracles attributed to the painting:

  • The first miracle he recorded occurred in 1671, the same year the first chapel was built. A two-year-old child fell from the second floor onto a stone pavement and was badly injured. The parents then prayed to Our Lady and the next day the child was healthy once again.
  • In 1702, Vilnius was captured by the Swedish Army during the Great Northern War. The Swedes, who were Protestants, mocked the painting, forbade songs and prayers, and caroused around the Gate of Dawn. One soldier even shot at the painting (the bullet hole can still be seen on the right sleeve). In the early morning of Holy Saturday, the heavy iron gates fell and crushed four Swedish soldiers – two died instantly and two later from their injuries. The next day, Easter, the Lithuanian Army successfully counter -attacked near the gate. The commander, grateful for the victory, bestowed a large silver votive offering upon the chapel. 
  • The painting subdued a city fire in 1706
  • She punished a Russian soldier for an attempt to steal her silver clothes in 1708

While these stories have violence at their center, numerous miraculous healings were also recorded and votive offerings became a tradition here.

They are usually small silver objects (hearts, crucifixes, figures of praying people, images of cured eyes, legs, arms).

Several times, some of these objects have  been taken down and melted into liturgical objects.

Currently, there are about 8,000 silver votive objects in the chapel. The large crescent moon located right beneath Our Lady is also a votive offering. Its origins are unknown but it bears an inscription in Polish and a date of 1849.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
— Revelation 12: 1

In 1927, the image was canonically crowned as Mother of Mercy

In her Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, Saint Faustina Kowalska writes of a mystical experience in the Gate of Dawn chapel involving the icon.

On 15 November 1935, she was in the chapel participating in the last day of the novena before the feast day of the icon, 16 November. She writes of seeing the icon taking on "a living appearance" and speaking to her, telling her "accept all that God asked of me like a little child, without questioning."

The first exposition of the Divine Mercy image, painted by Eugene Kazimierowski under the direction of Saint Faustina, took place at the chapel on April 1935.

For Your Journal:

How does the heavy metal draping inform your feelings about this image?

What does Divine Mercy mean to you?

Have you ever experienced miraculous healing?

If you were going to place a silver icon at the feet of this image, what would it be?


Come share your thoughts in Creating With the Sacred Feminine.