Dr. Gintautas Rackevičius


In historical literature there is no one opinion whether Vytautas - Alexander the Great has built the Island Castle or just rebuilt and extended it at the beginning of the 15th century.

A.Baliulis, S.Mikulionis and A.Miškinis have developed a hypothesis that the beginning of building of the Island Castle was the first half of the 14th century. They presumed that in the Island it was initially built in castrum, transitional to castle, style containing Romanesque features. In B. Lisauskaitė’s opinion, the construction of the Trakai Island Castle began in the second half of the 14th century. A. Kuncevičius assigns the Trakai Island Castle to the second period of building brick and stone castles in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the beginning of the 15th century.

All of them, and others alike, agree in that the construction of the Trakai Island Castle was eventually completed in the early 15th century during the reign of Vytautas.

Nearly one hundred documents deal with Vytautas’ visits to Trakai between 1397 and 1430. The Duke paid almost no visits Trakai in the period 1392-1408 but often spent his time there since 1408 or 1409. According to written sources, Vytautas started spending more time in Trakai than in Vilnius since 1408. In the opinion of Ivinskis, the Island Castle was built in the same year or one year earlier. On the whole, the Trakai Island Castle acquired the late - Gothic features at the beginning of the 15th century, in approximately 1407 or 1408. No other grand duke of Lithuania established so friendly relations with the Teutonic Knights as Vytautas did in 1405 - 1409. We have to agree with Z. Ivinskis in that during the periods of peace architects could possibly be invited, called murers in written sources. Z. Ivinskis refers to one document, Vytautas’ letter to the Marshal of the Teutonic Knights. The letter was written on 3 July 1407 in Orsha. The Grand Duke asked the Marshal to send back to him the same or another architect as soon as possible because he was afraid of being unable to continue one very important construction. The date of the document coincides with the date of building the Island Castle, according to the itinerant.

The famous investigator of castles B. Schmidt used to visit the Castle during the Great War. He was impressed by the architecture of the Island Castle and compared it with the best buildings of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. We can refer to the Order’s influence not on the military architecture only but on the residential one as well.

Archaeological investigations of the Island Castle were carried out right after World War II. During the excavations near the grand ducal residence, seventeen first Lithuanian silver coins dated the late 14th and the early 15th centuries were discovered in the deepest layers. In modern numismatic literature, coins of type II are dated 1401-1430 or 1413-1430. The investigated layers reported also about the initial material for roof covering, Gothic trough-shaped tiles. Some of them are peculiar. Part of these were black or grey, others were green-coloured glazed.

After the fire in 1419, the roofs of the nearest residence of Vytautas the Great in the Upper Castle in Vilnius were decorated with green glazed tiles. During archaeological investigations of the Castle Hill, over one hundred fragments of green glazed tiles were discovered. In the opinion of the historian J. Jurginis, the Upper Castle was reconstructed over a short period of time because already in the summer of 1422 Vytautas wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Riga and received the Pope’s envoys in the Vilnius Castle.

Documents about the finds during the restoration works in the Island Castle proved that its roofs were decorated with glazed tiles like those in the Vilnius Upper Castle (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Vytautas residence in the Trakai island castle at the beginning of the 15th cent. Reconstruction project of the residence (not realized), author B. Krūminis. (Published - A. Baliulis, S. Mikulionis, S. Miškinis: Trakų miestas ir pilys [The city and castles of Trakai]. Vilnius 1991, 251, fig. 176). A sketch project of the exterior, author G. Rackevičius, drawing by V. Abramauskas.


There is little difference between the roof tiles used in the Grand Duke’s Vilnius and Trakai residences. The tiles found during the excavations of the Castle Hill in Vilnius are fully covered with green glaze, whereas the documents about the excavations in the Island Castle report that the tiles used in Trakai were only half-glazed. It was thus possible to see only the lower part of the tiles, which was glazed and uncovered by the upper row of tiles. The part of the tiles covered by the upper row was without glaze.

The roof of the Luck Upper Castle was already decorated in the same way at the time of the famous Convention of 1429, by which Vytautas was proclaimed King of Lithuania. Analogous late-Gothic roof decoration was well known in Marienburg, one of the nearest European capitals at the time. The roofs of the Marienburg Upper Castle (Hohschloss) were ornamented with yellow and green glazed tiles. There are some green-glazed tiles in the roofs of the Marienburg Middle Castle (Mittelschloss). At this point we can also refer to Vytautas’ personal impressions about his visits to the Teutonic Order in 1382-1384 and 1390-1392.

The roofs of the grand ducal residence in the Trakai Island Castle were covered by black Gothic tiles too. These are much more complicated to imagine. They are unknown to Lithuanian historiography. I would like to ask my colleagues’ help in finding analogies to our region. During my practical researches of the Vilnius Lower Castle we already discovered some black Gothic roof tiles. It is a pity I had not paid enough attention to these finds before I read the documents about the excavations in Trakai.

There is some information about green and yellow-glazed bricks found during some excavations outside the grand ducal residence. The authors of the diary presume that these might be details of the interior. It is necessary to point out that all artefacts investigated were found beyond the walls of the residence. I presume they could be details of the interior.

The outer walls with ornaments of black brick headers were simpler and widely spread in the Middle Ages. During the restoration of the Island Castle before World War II, ornaments of black brick were discovered on the towers and the Ducal Palace. Illustrations to a report by an architect of restoration, currently in print, do not show us the kind of ornamentation on the decorated buildings in the Trakai Island Castle. During subsequent reconstruction of the Island Castle, these Gothic decorations were not restored or recreated (some original fragments have survived Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 One of some original fragments of masonry decorated with black brick headers from the residence of Trakai Insular castle. Photo: V. Abramauskas.

Some materials have been published on black brick header decorations on the walls of the Trakai Peninsula Castle. The period of decoration of these parts of the walls is unknown.

The majority of churches that have kept Gothic features since the late 14th and the early 15th centuries were decorated with diamond-shaped ornaments of black brick headers.

One of the earliest Catholic churches, the Church of St Nicholas in Vilnius was first mentioned in written sources in 1387. After the last restoration of the Church the remains of a diamond-shaped black brick ornament can be seen on its south facade.

The Franciscan order exerted significant influence over the architecture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Franciscans had built a church in Trakai Street in Vilnius before officially converting Lithuania to Christianity in 1387, which was destroyed by the Crusaders in 1390. A new church was built in the early 15th century (ca 1421). The first reference to the Church of St Mary came from a document dated 1422. The facades and the stair tower on the northwestern corner of the Church of St Mary of the Franciscan monastery are decorated with diamond - shaped black brick ornamentation. Franciscans also built the Church of St Mary in Kaunas in the early 15th century. The first reference to it comes from a document dating back to 1439. The document allowed holding services in the Church for foreigners, mainly merchants. The frontage of the Church of St Mary is also decorated with diamond-shaped and cross-shaped black brick header ornaments. One of the south fa?ade buttresses of the Kaunas Cathedral Church also carries decorations of diamond-shaped black brick headers. According to a hypothesis, the Parish Church (later the Cathedral) in Kaunas was built in around 1408-1413. The Church of St Gertrude in a suburb of Kaunas on the road to Vilnius was constructed in the second half of the 15th century. The Church was King Alexander’s gift to the city of Kaunas in 1503. All facades of its oldest part are decorated with black brick headers. Such a tradition for wall decoration continued in the Lithuanian architecture throughout the 16th century.

The Church of St George was built in 1403 by the Teutonic Order on the bank of the river Nevėžis right on the border with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The right buttress of the main fa?ade of the Church of St George contains diamond-shaped ornaments of black brick headers too.

The buildings of the Castle of Marienburg, the nearest capital at that time, even its defence walls, including the residence of the Great Master, were decorated with various ornaments of black brick headers. One of the most distinct examples of diamond-shaped ornamentation is the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Radzyń Chelmiński (castrum de Redino, Reden). The Czersk Castle in Mazovia is another very impressive example of wall decoration with black brick headers in the nearest region.

One of the authors of restoration of the Trakai Island Castle wrote as early as in 1941 that at that time there was enough information to reconstruct the Castle as it was under the reign of Vytautas. The author of the reconstruction, which was accomplished in 1962, proposed the facades to be half-covered with plaster and the roofs covered with unglazed flat tiles – same as they were in the 16th century. The reconstruction of the castle as it appears nowadays was formally correct. Sigismund Augustus III (III in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, II in the Kingdom of Poland) wanted this castle to be his summer residence. It is very important that he did not realise his plans. The Castle served for holding captives of wars against Moscow; therefore, the reconstructed exteriors look like parts of a prison rather than the residence of Vytautas - Alexander the Great (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Trakai island castle at nowadays. Author of the reconstruction B. Krūminis. Photo: A. Kuncevičius.

The question: is it possible to show the reconstructed Trakai Island Castle for a grand ducal residence, is rhetorical. Pityingly, rebuilding of castles has very often not much in common with our historical past.

Sources and literature

A. Baliulis, S. Mikulionis, S. Miškinis, 1991. The city and castles of Trakai. Vilnius, 1991.

J. Borovskis, 1941. The Trakai Island Castle as a fortress and a grand ducal residence in the light of conservation works carried out // Chronicle of the Vytautas the Great Museum of Culture. Kaunas. Vol.1, p. 199-242.

CDCV, 1948 – Codex diplomaticus ecclesiae cathedralis necnon dioceseos Vilnensis (1387 – 1507). Published by J. Fijałek and Wł. Semkowicz. Kraków , 1948. Vol.1.

Cev, 1882 – Codex epistolaris Vitoldi magni ducis Lithuaniae 1376 – 1430 collectus opera Antonii Prohaske // Monumenta medii aevi historica res gestas Poloniae illustranta. Cracoviae, 1882. Vol.6.

Chrzanowski T., Kornecki M. Pomorze wschodnie // Architektura gotycka w Polsce. Warszawa, 1995. T.1 i 2, l. 93-109.

V. Drėma, 1991. Vilnius Lost. Vilnius, 1991.

Grinevičiūtė–Jankevičienė, 1960. The Kaunas Basilica // Chronicle of the State Inspectorate for the Protection of Architectural Monuments of the Lithuanian SSR. Vilnius. Vol.2, p. 129-137.

Guerquin B., 1974. Zamki w Polsce. Warszawa, 1974.

E. Ivanauskas and M. Balčius, 1994. Bars and coins of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania between 1387 and 1495. Vilnius, 1994.

Z. Ivinskis, 1941. The Lake Galvė Island Castle in Trakai // Chronicle of the Vytautas the Great Museum of Culture. Kaunas, 1941. Vol.1, p. 135-198.

A. Jankevičienė, 1988. Buildings of Worship // History of Lithuanian Architecture. Vilnius, 1988. Vol.1, p.119-154.

A. Jankevičienė, 1991a. The Church of St Gertrude // Architecture of Kaunas. Vilnius, 1991, p.153-155.

A. Jankevičienė, 1991b. The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Ascension (Vytautas Magnus Church) // Architecture of Kaunas. Vilnius, 1991, p. 209-213.

J. Jurginis, 1971. Written data. Castles of Vilnius // Castles of Lithuania. Vilnius, 1971, p. 25-34.

R. Kiersnowski, 1984. Najdawniejsze monety Litewskie // Wiadomości Numizmatyczne. Rok XXVIII – zeszyt 3–4 (109-110). Warszawa, 1984, l.129-175.

N. Kovrigina and R. Legaitė, 1956a. Diary of Archaeological Excavations of the Lake Galvė Island Castle in Trakai. Trakai, 1956 // Archive of the Institute of Lithuanian History. F. No.42.

N. Kovrigina and R. Legaitė, 1956b. Report on the researches of the Trakai Island Castle related to the excavations carried out during the 1956 summer season. Trakai, 1956 // Archive of the Institute of Lithuanian History. F. No.165 (annual report).

A. Kuncevičius, 2000. Development of Lithuanian Castles // From the History of Baltic Culture. Vilnius, 2000, p. 27-35.

B. Lisauskaitė, 2001. Archaeological investigations of Trakai Castles in 1971-1998 // Archeology of Lithuanian Castles. Klaipėda, 2001, p. 105-127.

O. Navickaitė, 1952. Diary of archaeological observations in the Trakai Island Castle of 1952 // Archive of the Institute of Lithuanian History. F. No.16.

O. Navickaitė, 1960. Archaeological investigations in the Trakai Island Castle // Chronicle of the State Inspectorate for the Protection of Architectural Monuments of the Lithuanian SSR. Vilnius, 1960, vol.2, p. 69-80.

G. Rackevičius, 2000. Roofs of the Vilnius Upper Castle in the Early 15th Century // From the History of Baltic Culture. Vilnius, 2000, p. 35-48.

De la Riestra P., 1998. Architektur der Gotik in den „deutschen Landen“ // Gotik. Architektur. Skulptur. Malerei. Köln, 1998, s.190-235.

M.V. Malevskaya, 1999. Palace in the Luck Upper Castle // State Hermitage. Medieval Architecture and Monumental Art. St Petersburg, 1999, p.87-91.