Vilnius’s medieval defensive walls originally had nine entry gates, all built in the early 16th century; as was custom then, each was decorated with a portrait of the Virgin Mary to ensure the protection of the city. Today only remnants of these walls still stand after the Russian attacks of 1799, and the whitewashed Gate of Dawn (Aušros Vartai), completed in 1522 with an ornate pediment, is the last remaining of the original fortified city entrances.
Around 1630, Carmelite monks from a nearby monastery replaced the original image on the Gate of Dawn with a new icon named the ‘Vilnius Madonna’, painted on oak boards and widely believed in both Catholic and Orthodox faiths to have mystical healing powers. The Renaissance-style, pastel-blue-and-white Chapel of Our Lady of the Dawn was grafted on to the southern side of Gate of Dawn around 1706 to house the painting, which became one of Lithuania’s most revered icons.
Today it is encrusted in gold and silver and its pretty little chapel is adorned with silver votives donated by pilgrims. Masses are held in both Polish and Lithuanian and on holy days the streets around the chapel are brought to a standstill as worshipers flock to pray in front of the icon.
The Gate of Dawn is open daily from 6 a.m until 7 p.m.