Dear to every Vilnian is the image of the Holy Mother of Mercy in the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn, a site of pilgrimage and Marian devotion since the 17th century. In the 1930s, Vilnius became home to the now-famous image of Merciful Jesus, popularly known as the Image of Divine Mercy, painted in 1934 by Eugene Kazimierowski according to the visions of Sister Faustina.
Fittingly, the first place that the image of Merciful Jesus was publicly venerated was at His Merciful Mother’s Chapel, the Gates of Dawn. In April of 1935, for three days leading up to the first Sunday after Easter, the image was honored by crowds of faithful people. This occasion also marked the closing of the Jubilee Year of the Redemption of the World, as it had been nineteen hundred years since the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Sister Faustina, who attended these holy days, wrote in her diary that, during the liturgy, the arm of the Savior was moving and blessing all the people gathered there with the sign of the Cross. The image looked like it was alive and the rays flowing from it were penetrating into people’s hearts and were spreading ever further.
St. Faustina experienced the first revelation of the Merciful Savior on 22 February 1931 in Płock, Poland. At that time, she had made her first vows as one of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. In 1933, having professed her perpetual vows, she was directed by her superior to go to the convent house in Vilnius, where she lived until 1936. It was in Vilnius where she had more visions of Jesus, guided the painting of the image, and received from our Lord the message of His divine mercy for the world.
In his painting, Kazimierowski depicted Jesus in the way Sister Faustina saw Him in her visions. His right hand lifted to bless those who look upon Him and clothed with a white tunic, the Savior seems to say, “Peace be with you”. With His left hand, Jesus touches His breast – His Sacred Heart – wherefrom two rays spring forth, one pale, the other red. The pale ray symbolizes water cleansing the soul; the red symbolizes blood, the life of the spirit. Together, these rays shelter souls from the righteous anger of our Heavenly Father, just as they did 2,000 years ago as blood and water flowed out from Jesus’ pierced side when He offered Himself on the cross to the Father in our place, in atonement for our sins. Happy are they who are found living in the shelter of God’s mercy! The water, in turn, symbolizes the healing Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation while the blood points to the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The Sacraments truly are springs of grace, refreshment, and healing in the life of the Christian. In St. Faustina’s visions, the Savior asked that the words “Jesus, I trust in you” be inscribed at the bottom of the image. This prayer reminds us that trust is the key to live a life in union with God.
Jesus promised an abundance of graces for those who will pray in front of this painting. He said to St. Faustina:
“I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over [its] enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I Myself will defend [that soul] as My own glory.” (Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 48)
Jesus promised to protect cities and villages where the image is venerated and also all those who trust in the mercy of God.
After the image of Merciful Jesus was completed in June 1934, it was kept in the corridor of the convent of the Bernardine Sisters beside the Church of St. Michael where Fr. Michael Sopoćko was rector. Jesus, in one of St. Faustina’s visions, had expressed to her His wish that the image be put in a place of honor, above the main altar of the church. In 1937, on the first Sunday after Easter – now Divine Mercy Sunday – the image of Merciful Jesus was hung in the Church of St. Michael next to the main altar.
Sister Faustina, however, never saw Jesus’ wish fulfilled. She fell sick in March 1936, so she was transferred from Vilnius back to Poland by her superiors. In October 1938, at the age of 33, she died near Kraków, where she was buried. After her death, her diary (entitled Divine Mercy in My Soul) was read and unveiled much of the mystery of the revelation of Divine Mercy.
Throughout the Second World War, the Baltic states changed between the hands the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The end of the war brought with it Soviet occupation for Lithuania. In August 1948, the Church of St. Michael was closed by the communist government, and the convent of the Bernardine Sisters was abolished. All the contents that could be saved from Soviet hands were moved to the Church of the Holy Spirit or placed inside the yard of the Dominicans. But the Image of Divine Mercy was not taken down. For a time, it remained undisturbed in St. Michael’s. Only in July 1951 was it removed when two faithful women – Bronė Miniotaitė and Janina Rodzevič – ransomed the image from the keeper of the church and after a while gave it to the priest of the Church of Holy Spirit. Some people wanted to transport it to Poland, but that proved impossible because of the very strict Soviet border control. One man promised to take it across the border illegally, but changed his mind at the last minute, later admitting that he thought it would be a sacrilege.
In 1956, the Image of Divine Mercy was taken from Lithuania to Belarus, to the small church of Naujoji Rūda, not far from Grodno. There the image remained for over a decade, people coming to see and pray in front of it. In 1970, as had happened years earlier at St. Michael’s, the church was shut down by the government and looted. Everything inside was removed. Everything, that is, except the Image of Divine Mercy. By a miracle, it was untouched.
It was not safe for the image to hang in the neglected church during those long years, so people began planning how to transport it back to Lithuania. In the autumn of 1986, by the efforts of a few priests – among them one Fr. Tadeuš Kondrusievič (now archbishop of the Diocese of the Mother of God in Moscow) and the bishop of Grodno, Aleksander Kaškievič – the Image of Divine Mercy was spirited back to Vilnius. It was given to the care of the Church of the Holy Spirit again, and since a lot of repair work was going on in the church at that time, a new painting did not raise the suspicion of the government.
It was hung on a side altar of the church, where it remained until 2005. In the spring of 2003, the professional restorer Edita Hankovsa-Červinska removed previous signs of preservation and repainting from the image, revealing the image exactly as it was in 1934 when Kazimierowski painted it under Sister Faustina’s guidance.
On 28 September 2005, the Image of Divine Mercy was moved to the restored, nearby Church of the Holy Trinity, which was thereafter named the Shrine of Divine Mercy.