The Sweetest Name of Mary: The Arch-Fraternity at Vilnius Cathedral (1670–1938)

Among valuable items held by the Manuscript Department of the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences is the member book of the Arch-Fraternity of the Sweetest Name of Mary at Vilnius Cathedral (Album Archiconfraternitatis Dulcissimi Nominis Mariae).

350 ago, in the spring of 1671, on March 8, an impressive procession left the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit and proceeded through the Old Town of Vilnius, ceremonially leading the Arch-Fraternity of the Sweetest Name of Mary into Vilnius Cathedral.  At first, the Arch-Fraternity occupied the Goštautas Chapel, but later moved to the adjacent chapel, which was then given the name of Mary (now it is the Chapel of the Exiles).  The main initiator of the Arch-Fraternity was the Auxiliary Bishop of Vilnius and Titular Bishop of Gratianopolis Mikołaj Słupski (~1613–1693).

A lavishly decorated book was made for members of the Arch-Fraternity to sign in.  The first members to put their signatures in the books were the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki (1640–1673), and his wife Eleonore Maria Josefa von Österreich (1653–1697).  Later the future ruler Jan III Sobieski (1629–1696), the rulers Augustus II (1670–1733) and Augustus III (1696–1763),  bishops, prelates, canons and other clergy, senior government officials with their family members, monastic communities, and other believers joined the Arch-Fraternity, most new members having signed in their own hand. The pages of the book also bear autographs of prominent people from later times.  For example, the acclaimed German theologian and Byzantinist, a professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, Jesuit Georg Hofmann (1885–1956) signed himself in as a member in 1923.

The activities of the Arch-Fraternity went on intermittently for more than 260 years, sometimes slowing down or pausing for a while.  With a view to reviving the Arch-Fraternity, prayer books reminding of its former glory and popularity, and of the illustrious members, were published in 1755, 1845, 1907, and 1928. The fraternity faced severe tribulations after the collapse of the Chapel of the Name of Mary in 1769, when the bell tower fell on it during a storm.

The binding of the member book of the Arch-Fraternity of the Sweetest Name of Mary is considered to be one of the most beautifully decorated works by Vilnius bookbinders.  The book is covered in raspberry-colored textile with silver fittings and decorated with the monogram of the Holy Virgin Mary and an iconographic scene (Holy Virgin Mary with the Infant, surrounded by iconographic elements of the Immaculate Conception).  This valuable member book was for a while kept in the treasure of Vilnius Cathedral.

Before World War II, the book was hidden together with the archive of the Vilnius Chapter.  The archive was discovered in the spring of 1956, when repairs were being made on Vilnius Cathedral (which had been requisitioned from the Catholic Church) to adapt it for housing the Vilnius Picture Gallery.  The discovered archive along with the Arch-Fraternity’s member book was handed over to the Manuscript Department of the then Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Gita Drungilienė