The Colouration and Iconography of Altars in the Churches of the Vilnius Diocese of the First Half of the Seventeenth Century

Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis


  • Mindaugas Paknys



Vilnius Diocese, Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the seventeenth century, churches, altars, iconography, visitations


In 1653–54, extensive visitations were carried out in the Vilnius Diocese. In total 136 parishes, which constituted ten out of twenty-six deaneries of the diocese, were inspected. Compared to previous visitations, very detailed information was col- lected about the parishes, church buildings and their decoration, liturgical vestments and vessels, libraries, and the clergy. The visitation acts provide a lot of information about the situation in the Vilnius Diocese of that time and can be useful not only to historians of the Church, but also to researchers of art, economy, and even literature. Most of the objects described during these visitations (church buildings, altars, paintings) have not survived, which is why this region has not generated much research in- terest until today. This part of the Vilnius Diocese has received less attention also due to the fact that the absolute majority of the churches where the visitations were conducted are located outside the area inhabited by ethnic Lithuanians. Nevertheless, the information recorded during the visitations is particularly useful and valuable for the research into the situation of the Vilnius Diocese at that time, and the visitation acts not only provide information about specific parishes, but also allow for a general assessment of the liturgy, veneration of saints, buildings, their decoration and equipment, clergy, duties, and other things. In the future, researchers will hopefully make use of the data provided by these historical sources, and expand and deepen the information about the Vilnius Diocese in the first half of the seventeenth century.

This article focuses on church altars and, specifically, on two of their aspects. First of all, the iconography of the altarpieces is reviewed. It directly testifies to religious piety and veneration of saints in this region. The research showed that like in the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the given region the Blessed Virgin Mary was the central object of veneration and piety, and Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity were also quite frequently depicted in paintings. Visitators often described the plots of the images (mostly paintings, more seldom sculptures) in greater detail than usual, which allows us not only to understand which saints were painted, but also to recognise their iconographic types. Secondly, the article explores the colours that were used to decorate church altars. The small number of surviving altars and the limited knowledge about their colouration led to the fact that until now the colours of the altars in this early period (mid-seventeenth century) have not yet been analysed. The findings presented in this article show that altars were mostly painted in liturgical colours, but black as well as blue associated with the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary were also very popular. Until the mid-seventeenth century, in general, there is very little evidence about the colours used to decorate altars in written sources. Therefore, the research presented in this article can be useful in the future for a discussion of broader issues of colouration in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the seventeenth – eighteenth centuries.

Author Biography

Mindaugas Paknys

Doctor of Humanities. Fields of scholarly interest include: religious art and history of culture of the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He studied at the Vilnius University, Faculty of History, in 1991–1997. Since 1997, he has been working at the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute. In 2002, he defended doctoral dissertation in Art History titled Patronage in the 17th Century in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: Placement of Religious Art Orders. Until 2022, he attended 27 scholarly research conferences, published more than 65 scientific articles and five monographs (recently, Pažaislio eremas: kamaldulių vienuolyno istorija [Pažaislis Her­ mitage: The History of the Camaldolese Monatery], Vilnius: Lietuvos kultūros tyrimų institutas, 2020).



How to Cite

Paknys, M. (2023). The Colouration and Iconography of Altars in the Churches of the Vilnius Diocese of the First Half of the Seventeenth Century: Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis. Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis, (110-111), 100–120.