Old Arsenal. Photo by M. Sakalauskas
Tapestry "Consecration of the Temple." Around 1650. (School of P. P. Rubens), Brussels Manufacture of Jacobs von Zeunen. Gift of Lithuanian Vice-Chancellor K. L. Sapiega to Vilnius Cathedral.  Photo by A. Luksenas

 

THE OLD ARSENAL

The history of Vilnius Lower Castle and its buildings is complex and spans several centuries. The Applied Art Museum or the eastern block of the Old Arsenal is one of the buildings of the Lower Castle. More detailed data on the buildings of the Lower Castle dates back to 16-17th centuries. The data on the periods of 13-14th centuries and earlier is derived mainly from archeological investigations.

The 1972-1978 archeological investigations of the Old Arsenal revealed 5-7-meter-deep cultural layer. This layer was bound to contain the signs of six archeological periods, the lowest cultural layer edge having traces of the settlement from the late Neolithic period, the Bronze Age, which was washed off by tide waters of the rivers Neris and Vilnele. After some time the water lowered, and a considerable layer of marsh peat accumulated on the top of the former settlement. The site came back to more active life only by the beginning of the first millennium; it gained even more impetus during the 12-14th centuries. The cultural layer of the period contained living quarters and outbuildings, remains of craftsmen’s workshops, scraps of metal, bone and leather works; abundance of pottery made by throwing were discovered there, too. This data provides basis to conclude that in the first half of the 13th century craftsmen, mainly shoemakers, densely populated the northeastern part of the Lower castle area. It seems that in the 13th century the wooden settlement at the foot of the castle was fortified; a little mound and a moat encircled it. The investigations of the Arsenal revealed remains of three subsequent layers of timber road. The road was made of wooden boards and reinforced by logs at the sides. The cobble road leading across all Lower Castle territory towards the gate of the castle was laid in the middle of the 15th century - early 16th century on the top of the 11-12th c. wooden road.

The wooden housing seems to have been pulled down not earlier than the middle of the 15th century, and instead the eastern masonry wall of the Lower castle had been built, 2.7 meters in height and 9-10 meters in width. The bottom of the wall was mostly large stone masonry. At the confluence of the rivers Neris and Vilnele the eastern wall terminated in a square brickwork tower. The brickwork was mostly of flying Flemish bonding (two stretches between each header in the same course). The fragments of this tower can be seen upon entering the museum on the right side of the stairs. After the fire which most probably followed one of the encounters with the German knights in the second half of the 14th century, the walls of the tower were reinforced, and the tower itself enlarged. The eastern defensive wall was found to contain four-meter tall and three-meter wide pointed arch castle gate, which obviously led to the so called Crooked castle (Curvum castrum). Today this gate receives the visitors of the exhibition.

In the mid-15th century, a sumptuous masonry palace was constructed in the northeastern part of the Lower castle territory; marble inlays of different colours decorated its interior. In the middle of the 16th century, the Arsenal was built on the site of the palace and the remains of the Lower castle defensive wall. Sigismund the Old, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland (1467-1548) was responsible for constructing the Arsenal. The construction project was supervised by Ulrich Hosius (mentioned in Vilnius about 1500-1535). The Arsenal was expanded and completed by Sigismund Augustus (1520-1572), the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland. At that time the construction work was observed by Hiob Braitfus, the overseer of Vilnius castles, architect and engineer who had been active in Vilnius since 1557 and had organized production of weapons and gun powder in the town. At that time the Arsenal was comprised of eastern, northern and western blocks situated around a square courtyard. The eastern block was the main part of the Arsenal, it was a late Gothic two-storey building with a gable roof and two frontals at the ends. Both floors of the building had a spacious three-aisle hall. In the middle of the 16th century, the Lower castle Arsenal was the largest one in the Polish-Lithuanian state. In the second half of the 16th century, the Arsenal was re-constructed, and a Renaissance attic decorated in double arch niches was added to the eastern block. The eastern block is the surviving residue of the Arsenal. The Old arsenal was represented on the maps of Vilnius by Frans Hoogenbergh in 1545, T. Makowski in 1660 and Fiurstenhof in 1737. The Arsenal was depicted in several water-colors by Franciszek Smuglewicz (1745-1807), too. A part of the Old arsenal in front of Sereikiškes park was depicted by the painter Józef Peszka (1769-1831). The Arsenal was badly damaged in the middle of the 17th century war with Russia. Until the end of the 18th century the building stood half in ruins. In 1780 Sapieha Kazimierz Nestor (1754-1798) allocated funds for the repair of the Arsenal. At that time the attic of the eastern block was pulled down and the ground floor was covered by a gable roof. In 1845-1848, the northern wall of the eastern block was equipped with firing apertures. In early 20th century, the northern block of the Arsenal was pulled down and a new building was constructed instead. The western block was destroyed by fire in 1944. Only fragments of the eastern block have survived until 1977. Archeological, historical and oceanographic data enabled the historian Evaldas Purlys to reconstruct the eastern block of the Old Arsenal and accommodate it to the needs of a museum. The architect Sigitas Lasavickas, and archeologists Albertas Lisanka, Irena Juciene have also investigated this significant building.

In 1987, the reconstructed eastern block of the Old Arsenal housed the first exposition of applied art of the 14-20th centuries. In 1996-1999 the museum featured exhibition “Baroque Applied Art in Lithuania”. This exhibition was a part of the European Council cultural routes program “Baroque Route in Lithuania”. The Museum of Applied Art featured the exhibition “The Battle of Grunewald” which had been tremendously successful. The focus of the exhibition was the famous battle piece by Jan Mateiko “The Battle of Grunewald”, painted in 1878.

Prepared by Audrone Bliujiene

 

  © Lithuanian Art Museum, Fund of Samogitian Culture, Institute of Mathematics and Informatics 
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     Page updated 2006.03.27