IN THE LAND OF MARY

Professor Jerry Holsopple discusses the significance of Virgin Mary sculptures and iconography in the art of Lithuania as a source of strength, spirituality, inspiration and resistance


Mary Hill of CrossesA Mary statue at the Hill of CrossesLithuania, one of my favorite places to photograph, is a place of ironic juxtapositions. For instance monuments to the Soviet liberators from Germany, next to statues remembering the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians sent to Siberia by those same Soviets. I have been visiting for almost ten years, usually six or seven weeks at a time. 

There are many other representations of Mary to be found in Lithuania. At the Hill of Crosses, a significant religious site where more than 500,000 crosses stand, statues of Mary are prevalent.At the top of the hill stands a welcoming Mary, demonstrates the presence of Mary in the normal piety of Lithuanians.  Mary statues covered with small crosses representing the prayers of visitorsIt is not unusual to see wedding parties come here to take photos among the statues and crosses. Often the Mary statues are covered with small crosses representing the prayers of visitors. 

A short drive from the Hill of Crosses is the farm where Vilius Orvidas lived and did the majority of his work. Orvidas is a Lithuanian sculptor and spent much of his short life creating large stone sculptures. He grew up during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. The Soviet’s as part of their attempt to decimate religious practice had already bull-dozed the Hill of Crosses three times, but each time the local people had come under the cover of darkness and planted new crosses and statues. Orvidas’ father, Kazys, was a carver of tombstones. Orvidas learned the craft from his father but his vision went beyond that of the graveyard. Statue of Mary prayingAs Orvidas says about his work, “The prevailing theme of my work was religious. That enraged the Soviet ideologues of the stagnation period. They took all measures at their disposal to disrupt my work. My father was already in his eighties, but he was still working. To neutralize their terror methods, we covered up my activities by attributing them to my elderly father. For a while it worked.” (Orvidas and (ed.) 18) It was better that the Soviets think they were created by an old man who would soon die rather than one much younger. Under Andropov an attack was launched which damaged and destroyed some works. You can still see statues with broken piece or lying on the ground. One Mary leans against a log, still praying, symbolizing the struggle between the Soviet system and faith.

Blessed Virgin MaryOn my first time in Lithuania, I visited the Orvidas farm. Vilius Orvidas’ spiritual journey included a few years as a Franciscan before he returned to his sculpture work. When he died in his forties, he left behind a large garden full of his work. He did many sculptures of Mary including Blessed Mary, Weeping Mary and Suffering Mary. Visitors from the West often fail to recognize Mary in his work, for she doesn’t have the feminine character Western art has imposed on her. For Orvidas, living under the Soviet oppression, Mary was a sign of hope, a fellow sufferer and a survivor.

Orvidas’ largest grouping shows two figures of Mary with crosses in the background. A close view reveals Mary holding her heart in her hands. From the other vantage point you see the main altar. As Zukas states, “The peak of Orvidas’s artistic works are dozens of Holy Virgins and Mother Mary‘s sculptures: with a child and without it, with angels, with crowns, with haloes, with roses, with the swords piercing the heart and similar to that.” (Zukas 15).


Vilnius Ovidas' Two Marys with CrossesVilnius Ovidas' Suffering MaryBlessed Virgin Mary

 

Orvidas struggled with health issues throughout his life. In spite of this he worked hard, especially with the very large stones. Since he had to purchase and pay for the transport of these large pieces it is fortunate that working with stones for grave-sites provided a good income.  Zukas reports that during the Soviet times, “he hired cranes, heavy hoppers, bulldozers. Many a time I saw a full Kamazes (heavy truck) one after another turning from Plunge-Skuodas highway to the garden. Creating such a large creation required a constant source of income.” (Zukas 16)

Statue of Mary by Vilnius OrvidasHis carvings reflect his search for God, which led him in 1989 to become a Franciscan at the monastery church in Kretinga. Valuing the simple things of life as treasure is reflected in his carvings. While Orvidas, on his farm, had for years cared for the poor, for drug addicts and for those seeking spiritual life, life as a monk did not fully suit him.  After only two years at the monastery, with the permission of his superiors he returned to the farm and to his sculptural work. He said, “I prefer to live on the edge where the sparks fly.  Where you can be one thing or the other…That’s when it’s the hardest—you’re neither this nor that…It’s better to be a simple person.” (Orvidas and (ed.) 93)

Multiple MarysBefore my first visit, I read that Vilius could feel the stone and know what was inside waiting to come out. I confess that as I visited that first time I believed it. Philosopher, Justinas Mikutis said “the phenomena of this sculptor was the ability with a few strokes, with just a slight relief to put stone on fire as it were, to make it speak up an expressive art language. Even using means of expression sparingly, Vilius Orvidas was able to reach pulsating dynamics tamed and impregnated with the sublimity of the subject.”(Zukas 13) One day at the end of work, Orvidas fell over dead. He was still in his forties, but his mother says he is carving somewhere else. A grouping of Mary figures stands outside of the family home, where I first met his mother.

Vilnius Orvidas' Weeping MaryThe Farm was under constant surveillance by the Soviets, stones were marked for destruction and his sculptures were vandalized numerous times. Vilnius Ovidas' suffering MaryOrividas did all he could to save the large stones that were being dug up rather then let them be crushed into gravel.  His work came to be connected with resistance. As Julius Sasnaukas says, “The first time I visited the Orvydas Garden was just a few months after the end of my deportation. I returned to Lithuania.
The friends with whom I had previously participated in resistance and in dissident activity had already dispersed. It was entirely by chance that I went to the garden. While I was there it occurred to me that there were other ways of resisting the Soviet regime. Unfinished Mary at the Orvidas Farm
Actually, it was already happening. This is Vilius’s resistance…” (Orvidas and (ed.) 117) The Mary’s are strong—dominating the garden scape on which they stand—but not angry. Mary is a survivor, but one who has felt sorrow. Tears stand, like a constant flow, on the face of many of the Marys. A number of sculptures remain unfinished.

During the Soviet occupation many Russians were forced, by the Soviets, to relocate to Lithuania.  The Orthodox Church, although also persecuted, came along. Within the Russian Orthodox Church Mary is an important figure, evidenced within the liturgy but more importantly by the icons that fill the church building and which are part of many of the believer’s prayer corners at home. (Many of the icons of Mary are similar to those found in the Catholic Churches in Lithuania since they share a common Byzantine heritage.) Virgin of the SignDuring a year I spent in Lithuania as a Fulbright scholar, I studied icon writing (painting) with an Orthodox priest. Writing icons, considered a sacred act is always accompanied by theological reflection and in this case much discussion. I painted two versions of the The Virgin of the Sign, based on a 13th century version found at The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai (Nelson and Collins 253), while I was there and started drawings for several other forms.

Icons are often introduced as an aid to prayer and spiritual meditation, but these icons mean much more. All icons are to challenge the believer, by the example of life. For the Lithuanian, she is a companion along the way of experiencing pain, oppression, the loss of loved family members and wondering how much more can be endured. Mary also is strong like the rock, unbending and unbroken, still standing when the oppressors lose heart. She stands in resistance to those who are in power. When you live for years under the Soviets not knowing who you can trust and not being able to talk openly about your life, Mary becomes the one you can share your deepest experiences with. She is a caring and merciful mother figure. These icons of Mary, based on ones that are more than a thousand years old, have similar ideas of resistance, stubborn endurance and strength, to the sculptures I was experiencing with my repeated visits to the sculptures at the Orvidas Farm. This reaffirmed for me the place art can have in sustaining resistance to oppressive forces.

 

Nelson, Robert S., and Kristen M Collins, eds. Holy Image Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2006. Print.

Orvidas, Vilius, and Vytautas V. Landsbergis (ed.). Vilius Orvidas: Meditations. Trans. Sruoginis, Laima: Kronta, 2008. Print.

Zukas, Vaidotas. Vilius Orvidas: Stone Scupltures from Samogitia. Trans. translation, Private, Aleksej Kolesnikov and ed. Jerry Holsopple: Baltos Lankos, 1999. Print.

 


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