OLD NEW FACTS ABOUT THE LATE-GOTHIC EXTERIOR
OF THE GRAND DUCAL RESIDENCE IN THE TRAKAI ISLAND CASTLE
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. Lisauskaitės 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 Orders 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 Popes 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).
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 Dukes 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).
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 Alexanders 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
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