Lion and Eagle, Man and Column: Hybrid Images in the Decorum of the Kretinga Church Doors

Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis


  • Tojana Račiūnaitė Vilnius Academy of Arts, Vilnius, Lithuania



Kretinga Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Jonas Karolis Chodkevičius, wood carving, hermas, 17th century portraiture


By drawing on the principles of the 17th century portraiture, the paper discusses the functioning and meaning of the anthropomorphic imagery embedded withing the system of the architectonically structured decorum. The paper is based around the following question: is it feasible to identify the ‘average’ facial types as they are used in various pictorial systems with portraits of specific people? The research reconstructs the practices—prevailing in the discourses of the Lithuanian art history—of identifying specific individuals in the hermas on the doors of the Kretinga Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary; it also brings out the iconographic analogies in some of the wood carving motifs and offers their possible sources.

The research has shown that, during first decades of the 17th century, the roles of visual and verbal representations of a person were tak- en up by various hybrid structures. For instance, a personal coat of arms with the depiction of a particular individual, itself being a hybrid structure, makes a yet another hybrid formation primarily with another media of representation—that of a portrait. The same goes for the values and their representations professed, advocated, defended, or created by this particular individual, namely: churches, books, tombs, sarcophagi...

The analysis of written sources revealed the inherent connection between the literary portrait of an individual and the dedicated heraldic figures. Jonas Chodkevičius’ heraldic griffon blends in rather organically with the narrativised descriptions of the commander’s appearance, including the traits of physiognomy depicted in the spirit of Aristotelian tradition – for example, Chodkevičius’ noble and predatory “eagle’s nose”. Differently from literature and the odd illustrations from Giambattista Della Porta’s treatise on physiognomics, no such hybridity is found in representational art of the 17th century: a person is represented mimetically in a portrait and symbolically (in this case, via zoomorphic motifs) in the coat of arms. These different media can be unified within a single architectural space (e.g., a church) and a single architectonic system (tombstone, gateway, furniture, etc.). The question remains whether a specific person can be represented in a hybrid structure such as herma, term, Caryatid, or Atlas.

While deconstructing the art theorist Marija Matuškaitė’s idea about the identification of people—the approach that prevails in Lithuanian art historical discourse—in relation to the Kretinga Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the research concludes that the principle of similarity and the links with biographical facts are not enough to interpret the hermas as depictions of specific people. The research confirms and contex- tualises the depictions of the church founders Jonas Karolis Chodkevičius and Sofija Chodkevičienė in the upper segments of the coats of arms that decorate the doors; the research also proposes a hypothesis that the three hermas at the lower part of the doors represent three parts of the Rosary Prayer, yet they can also represent the community of worshippers, a com- mon prayer (Mt 18, 20) and the Church itself.

Iconographically, the anthropomorphic images found in the Kretinga Church decorum can be divided into two groups: the familiar portraits of saints (Jesus, Mary, and the Cherubs) and the hybrid figures of anthropomorphised columns (Atlas and Caryatid as the figures of man and woman that support the doors as well as the trypych of hermas in the decorative system of the main entrance of the church). Their function is not merely decorative and they clearly encode a message that is either dedicational or didactic. The research was unable to determine the iconographic sources and specific meanings of Atlas and Cryatid depicted on the sacristy doors as figures cinctured with rosary and morphed into volutes and mannerist “cufflinks”. It is obvious that this decorative composition, the upper part of which is decorated with the monogram of Jesus and the heads of Cherubs, and the sides of which are supported with two columns-figures that terminate at the pedestals ornamented with flower buds and lion heads (symbols of death/eternity), articulates the concept of faith and prayer. The same is also evident in the wood carvings and the iconographic programme of the church’s main entrance.

The research concludes that some of the motifs of the wood carvings of Kretinga church doors—burning lion heads and tasseled strings of rosary—are similar to the copper etchings in Joannis David’s book Veredicum Christianum (1606) illustrated by Theoodor Galle, Joan Galle and Johan Wierix. This allows us to assume that further research on the decora- tive motifs can be useful for the attempts to reconstruct the iconographic programme of these unique wood carvings, find out their origins, and clarify the circumstances of their creation.



How to Cite

Račiūnaitė, T. (2020). Lion and Eagle, Man and Column: Hybrid Images in the Decorum of the Kretinga Church Doors: Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis. Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis, (96), 43–86.