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Holy Fast at Pagan Feast: XVIII century Lithuanian drama about three Vilnius martyrs

Юрий  Клиценко, Русская народная линия


Yuri Klitsenko …

Holy Fast at Pagan Feast: XVIII century Lithuanian drama about three Vilnius martyrs
Yuri Klitsenko

Unlike the Catholicism the Orthodox teaching was not forced on the medieval Lithuanians with violence and compulsion. So both Orthodox and Catholics honour holy martyrs Anthony, John and Eustaphy executed by the pagans in Vilnius in about 1347 (feast April 14/27) as patron saints of Lithuania. On the order of Great Prince Olgerd three Lithuanians who served in the prince retinue and belonged to the Orthodox Church were hanged on an oak for the refusal to eat meat at a feast during fast time.

Stories about the three martyrs were the basis of drama "Holy fast", staged in 1732 by Vilnius University students. Historian Darius Baronas, who published the Latin original with a parallel Lithuanian translation, notes that in the opinion of the majority of researchers the drama was written by Jesuit Jan Joseph Obronpalsky (Darius Baronas, Trys Vilniaus kankiniai: istorija ir gyvenimas, Vilnius: Aidai, 2000).

The drama belongs to the student performances about the struggle of the Lithuanians against the Teutonic Order of Crusaders. In the intricate plot the church hagiographic data are intermingled with dramaturgic cliches in the barocco style, historical facts and folk legends.

The idea mentioned in this drama that a western knight cannot be defeated by conventional arms can be found in various chronicles of crusades in the 13th - 14th centuries. For example, in "Prussian Chronicle" catholic priest Peter from Dusburg puts a myth about invincibility of the Teutonic Order in the mouth of a Baltic elder, who visited a crusader castle and saw the knights without armour: "You should know that knight brethren are people like we are; they have broad and soft bellies like you see ours; their arms, food and other things are very similar to ours, but they have one difference: they have a custom that will certainly destroy us. Every night they get up from their bed and gather together in a chapel as well as many times during the day and they express their honour to their God, which we do not do. That is why they will definitely defeat us in the war". And since he visited the crusaders in fast time and saw them eat cabbage unknown at that time by the Baltic people he added: "Besides they eat grass like war-horses or mules; who then could fight back those who easily find their food in the field?" (Peter from Dusburg. Prussian Chronicle. M.: Ladomir, 1997, p. 84).

In the play other themes typical for the Lithuanian history and folklore are also mentioned: the crusaders deliberately destroy the crops which results in mass starvation of peaceful populace; gods and people demand for avengement; captive enemies are sacrificed to idols; nobody recognizes Kieystut dressed in a white cloak with a black cross. The scene when Anthony, John and Eustaphy acquire parts of holy relics also reflects historical facts of the 13th-14th centuries: among the war booty captured by crusaders in the Holy Land and Byzantium the miracle working relics were the most precious articles.

The history of the Orthodoxy in Lithuania is an inseparable part of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. Exposing the violence and intolerance, villainies of the Teutonic Order and pagan superstitions, the Church through Alexander Nevsky taught that "God is not found in human strength but in truth". The spiritual link between Vilnius martyrs and the Holy Russia is testified by the fact that in 1376 Constantinople Patriarch Philopheus sent the cross with the relics of Sts. Anthony, John and Eustaphy to Saint Sergius of Radonezh. The oldest image of the Lithuanian saints was embroidered on the big sakkos of Moscow Metropolitan Photius (1414-1417) between the Royal couples of the Byzantine empire and Great Principality of Moscow. In 1915 - 1946 the holy relics of the Heavenly Patrons of Lithuania stayed in Moscow.

The text below is the first publication of drama "Holy Fast" in English. Special thanks to Inga Deidule, Lithuania, for assistance in the preparation of the publication.

staged by graceful, glorious and splendid youth
of "Jesus Society" Vilnius Academy in 1732 anno Domini


Holy martyrs John, Anthony and Eustaphy, bodyguards of Olgerd, Great Prince of Lithuania, who were noble Lithuanians, for their commitment to the Christian faith, namely for their refusal to take forbidden food on the fast days, were hanged on Olgerd's order in Vilnius in 1328 AD. They were buried in the same town in the Holy Trinity church of Greek-Russian Rite (Priest Albert Koialowicz, "Collection of materials relating to the situation with the Church in the Great Principality of Lithuania").


To keep the souls of the holy martyrs who suffered greatly of hunger from the feast tables the Faith turns the profane food into birds of pray (that attack the banqueters) and strengthens the men of faith brought to the tables who were ready for the holy fast with spiritual bread.

Act I

Scene 1. After defeat of his troop and capture of his brother Kieystut by crusaders Olgerd hopes to propitiate gods with sacrificing Christian blood and orders to execute three noble captives at the entrance of the pagan shrine. But seeing with surprise that they cannot be slain by any weapon Olgerd requested the priest to ask gods, which way of the knights' execution would be pleasing to them.

Scene 2. In the midst of the pagan sacrificing there appears a phantom of death at the altar who invites three strangers to the table. The priest interprets the vision this way: since the crusaders destroyed crop fields in Lithuania many times forcing scores of people to starve to death, the captives should be punished at first by long starving and then invited for a sumptuous meal where they would die due to unbridled gluttony.

Scene 3. Following gods' advice Olgerd sends the captives to prison to torture them with hunger and orders to make a great feast and declare through heralds that anyone who gives food to the captives or does not come to the feast on the named day will be hanged.

Scene 4. John, Anthony and Eustaphy, frightened by the prince's edict, and especially because the feast was set on the day when the Christian faith forbids taking meat, go to their spiritual father priest Nestorius to ask for advice. Assisting Nestorius in singing praise to the Lord in the church they see verses of Psalm 68 "table becomes… a trap" in the air (PS 69:22). And when Nestorius interprets this heavenly sign about the table of the pagan prince put as a noose for the Christian faith and piety which encouraged them for the firm observance of the Orthodox fast.

Scene 5. The holy youths edified by pious admonitions go to the jail and induce the captive Christians rather to starve to death then to take forbidden food on fast day. During pious conversation they understand that the crusaders were not wounded by any weapon thanks to the holy relics hanging on their necks and remembering the motto "Quod colla vincit, Mentibus lauros ferat" ("Let the thing that binds necks crown the mind with laurels") they asked to give them parts of saints' relics.

First Choir

Temperance tells the banqueters for their correction about various fatal incidents during feasts.

Act II

Scene 1. Pursuing the crusaders who escaped from the jail the warriors capture a Lithuanian dressed as a crusader who tells Olgerd that his brother Kieystut and two drungars starved to death in captivity and showed Kieystut's clothes bought out from the jail wardens. Olgerd comes to think that the phantom of death appeared to invite his brother and military leaders to a burial feast. He thinks that their death is not revenged and sends his best men to catch the fugitives.

Scene 2. On their way the runaway crusaders meet Kieystut and two leaders dressed like crusaders who also escaped from the jail. When Kieystut realizes the Germans are fleeing from the Lithuanian captivity he attempts to detain them, but is himself caught by the arrived Lithuanian soldiers who bring him to Olgerd. The angry prince does not recognize his brother who shouts in vain that he is Kieystut, and sends him to prison together with the other crusaders.

Scene 3. Knowing nothing about it, the holy John, Anthony and Eustaphy bring allowed food to the jail being anxious for the captives not to take forbidden food. However when the captives rejected the food trying to spare the life of their benefactors, Kieystut who was also confined there, threatens them at first with hanging for violation of the prince's edict. Then he turns from threats to flattery and convinces John, Anthony and Eustaphy promising not only to keep the edict's violation in secret, but also to award them higher ranks in the troop: they only had to tell Olgerd about his escape in a crusader's dress and getting into prison by mistake. He gave them a golden chain to make the words credible, in order that reckless and implacable anger of the prince toward the crusaders would not fall incidentally also on the brother dressed in their clothes.

Scene 4. John follows his friends on their way to the prince's court being afraid that they can be betrayed by Kieystut and hanged for violation of the edict. Aware of Kieystut's zeal in worshipping idols and his guileful character, John realizes that with the food secretly brought to the crusaders and the golden chain - a prototype of hanging - the "table to the noose" (PS 69:22) has been laid. However Anthony and Eustaphy interpret the chain according to the crusaders' motto "Let the thing that binds necks crown the mind with laurels" as a promise of military ranks and victorious laurels and persuade him to give up fears and to go to the court. Meanwhile Dolarch whom they met on the road explaining the reason for the hurry lies to them saying that the prince is busy with important affairs and free access to him is forbidden till specific instruction.

Scene 5. With hopes for award and favour of both princes Dolarch goes to Olgerd as a herald of fortune. However when the prince still unregenerate and burning with anger hears about Kieystut thrown into prison by mistake without any clear evidence he commands Dolarch as a teller of this allegedly absurd story to leave the palace for an exile. Trying to obtain companions in this unlucky lot and keeping a deep offence in his heart Dolarch suggests John, Anthony and Eustaphy to go immediately to the palace since it is allegedly the best time to report about Kieystut. He himself follows them intending to assuage his offence with their trouble.

Scene 6. At first Olgerd rejects the story of John, Anthony and Eustaphy about Kieystut with resentment. But when they logically lay out all the circumstances of his escape in enemy's clothes and getting by mistake into prison and support the story with the golden chain given to them by Kieystut, Olgerd goes to the jail suspecting truth in their words and with great joy recognizes his brother Kieystut there. While the feast is being prepared he takes him to a separate room and treats to light snacks. For the service rendered to his brother the prince on the insistence of Kieystut awards John, Anthony and Estaphy with the highest military ranks, restores Dolarch tortured with envy at the court and charges him with the feast preparations.

Second Choir

While the Furies are feasting with Tyranny, Death is singing to the accompaniment of musical instruments that the feast of Furies and Tyranny ends with death of the innocent.


Scene 1. When the tables are laid Olgerd commands to bring the captive crusaders from the jail to the feast. After long starving one of them collapses and dies on the threshold of the jail, another on the way and the third at the entrance into the palace. Olgerd is very glad that the omen of the phantom of death that invited three men to the table has come true and that his brother is unhurt, and indulges in the joys of the feast.

Scene 2. Dolarch assigned to take care of the banqueters with surprise watches John, Anthony and Eustaphy who take nothing from the viands on the table, and then loudly declares that the feast viands are poisoned and slanderously accuses them that they are the causers and accomplices in this offence, testifying that they did not take from any of the served viands. Holy youths rejecting the accusation explain they do not eat not because of poison, but following the Christian law they abstain from meat this day. With threats and persuasion Olgerd tries to incline John, Anthony and Eustaphy to take forbidden food, but in vain, and he instructs Idolin, Dolarch's father, to avert them from the holy fast forbidding him on the request of his brother Kieystut and his son Vladislav to attempt their life in any way.

Scene 3. Idolin having achieved nothing by persuasion takes the holy youths to a sorcerer where the phantoms of the underworld driven by the power of the holy relics on the youths' neck are afraid that the motto "Let the thing that binds necks crown the mind with laurels" comes true.

Scene 4. Idolin encouraged for deceit by magic incantations imprisons the holy youths. Then he takes John to an obscure and dark room and holding a naked sword in his hands he threatens him with death if John does not renounce Christ and take meat. Having achieved nothing with threats, he turns him over to the others, dresses a wooden block in John's clothes and shows it from a distance as a beheaded body of John to Anthony, who was brought after John, and promises him the same fate if he rejects to obey the prince.

Discovering equal steadfastness in Anthony he commands to take him away too, and dresses his own son Dolarch who is eating at the table in Anthony's clothes. Calling Eustaphy he offers him a choice: either lie together with the killed John or eat meat with Anthony sitting at the table. Eustaphy who believes that Anthony forsaking the Orthodox feast is taking the forbidden food kills him in zeal and takes to flight. Idolin enraged after death of his son dashes as he was with a naked sword to the approaching guards, gets caught and is brought to the prince. Accused of the breach of the prince's will and unlawful execution of John and Anthony Idolin is immediately executed. And Olgerd thinks that the phantom of death came because of these three and believes that the prophecy has come true.

Scene 5. Grieving over the loss of his friends Vladislav examines their (as he thinks) bodies and finds the dead Dolarch dressed in Anthony's clothes and a carved wooden block decorated with John's cloak and suspects that they are alive. Together with Eustaphy who is back they search all the rooms in the house and find them both safe and sound. However seeing they are more than half dead with terror, Vladislav entertains them with singing and music and takes them to the palace.

Scene 6. Olgerd rejoices over the unexpected coming of the youths (for he thought they were dead) and asks them what has happened. Eustaphy relates the events as they actually happened and confesses among other things that being zealous for faith he killed Dolarch dressed in Anthony's clothes and eating forbidden food on the fast day. Getting angry with this Olgerd orders to put John, Anthony and Eustaphy who still rejected to eat the offered food, into the noose, believing they were the ones whom the phantom of death invited to his table.

Scene 7. Rejoicing over the Christian faith and the Orthodox fast, the holy martyrs on their way to the place of execution understand that the table of the prince was laid for them to get into the noose, and that the motto "Let the thing that binds necks crown the mind with laurels" comes true with the laurels of their martyrdom.


The Faith at the table of eternity declares that the holy martyrs took viands after holy fasting. Their heads were put on the altar and crowned with laurels to the singing of angels, and points to this story of abstinence from meat as an example for Vilniuas the town of Gedimin and invites the listeners to the holy feast of the Eucharist.

For the greater glory of God, thrice the best and the greatest, and for the honour of the Holy Virgin Mary.

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