History of the First Image of Divine Mercy
Since medieval times anyone entering into Vilnius, through the old City gates, are entering through the gates which protected medieval Vilnius from the enemy, for over five hundred years. These are the only remaining gates left intact in the old city walls from the middle ages . As you enter through these gates you cannot fail to pass under thebeautiful icon of the Mother of God, the “Mother of Divine Mercy” and it is this painting to which tradition attributes the historical name for the gates, Ausros Vartai “The Gates of Dawn”.
For over 500 years, pilgrims flocked to this miraculous font of grace, ever growing in popularity because of the marvelous graces reportedly received as a result of souls petitions to Our Lady, until it finally became known as the miraculous icon of Mary the Mother of Divine Mercy.
What is much less known is that the first Image of Divine Mercy, revealed to mankind in the message of Divine Mercy and painted at the request of Jesus, according to Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska’s vision in 1934, was painted here in Vilnius, by the artist Eugene Kazimirovski in the presence and under the instruction and direction of Saint Faustina herself and her spiritual director Fr.Michael Sopocko.
And what is more extraordinary is that it was in this city of Vilnius, right beside the famous miraculous icon of the “Mother of Mercy”, that this image of Jesus the Divine Mercy, now famous all over the world, was first publicly exposed to the world and first publicly venerated in a celebration which ended on the Sunday after Easter 1935, the Jubilee year of Salvation, the Sunday that is now approved by the Vatican as “Mercy Sunday”.
After the Tridiuum celebration commemorating this event, Saint Faustina who was in the crowd that day, recorded in her diary how overjoyed she was to hear Fr.Sopocko give a talk on Divine Mercy on the Sunday at the shrine, (the first proclamation of the message), and how she saw the Image of Our Lord as if come alive, as He extended His hand and spread His blessing over the huge gathered crowd of the faithful. She also records how she could see His rays of love and mercy penetrate many people’s hearts as they gathered there in a great unison of faith.
Although the first and only apparition in Poland to Saint Faustina of Jesus as the Image of Divine Mercy, occurred on February 22, 1931 in Plock, Saint Faustina had several apparitions of Jesus as Divine Mercy in Vilnius, where she lived in a convent house where she was sent by the superiors of her religious community, the Congregation of the “Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy” until 1936. The convent house where Saint Faustina first stayed in Vilnius was restored in 2006 by Val Conlon and HUDT “Divine Mercy in Action, a Divine Mercy apostolate from Ireland. It is open to visitors since.
In the image described by Saint Fauslina to the painter Eugene Kazjmirovski. Jesus was depicted wearing a white tunic bound by a sash, with his right hand raised in blessing to mankind, as if saying: “Peace be with you”, the words we hear in the liturgy on the Sunday after Easter. On this Sunday St. John’s gospel relates the resurrected Jesus appearance in the room of the last supper and of the institution of the sacrament of reconciliation. In the painting we see the rays of blood and water flowing from the veiled pierced heart of Jesus, and the wounds on his hands and feet giving witness to the events of Good Friday. The picture of Divine Mercy unites the two gospel events, which is the greatest witness of the merciful love of God for all mankind.
In the painting, the left hand of Jesus is touching his garment by His Heart. From here, as from an inexhaustible font of mercy, two rays flow out to the world, the one pale, and the other red. The pale rays symbolizes water clensing the soul, and the red rays, the blood, which renews the soul, The pale rays signify the sacrament of Baptism and Reconciliation, and the red rays signify the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Hence, these two rays symbolize these sacraments and all the graces of the Holy Spirit. In the first apparition to Saint Faustina Jesus requested that under the picture we should write, ”Jesus I Trust in You” reminding us that only the one who trusts is able to receive the graces given.
This picture was blessed for the first time by Fr.Sopocko, Saint Faustina’s spiritual director in 1935 on the first Sunday after Easter, the very Sunday, which was later, declared “Mercy Sunday”.
To those who venerate this picture, there is a promise, “the soul who venerates this picture will not perish”, said Saint Faustina. Also, Jesus promised to protect the cities and villages of the people who would venerate the picture and trust in God’s mercy.
On the one hand, the picture gives witness to the greatness of Divine Mercy, totally revealed in the Easter mystery, and on the other hand, Jesus himself reminded Saint Faustina, that his mercy requires action, and that even the strongest faith will not prevail, without works of mercy and love of neighbour. For this reason, he constantly urged Fauslina to pray for sinners.
“Beseech my mercy on sinners, I desire to help them. When you do penance and pray for sinners with faith, I will grant them the grace of conversion. This is the prayer:
O’ Blood and water which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus, as a font of mercy for us, I trust in You”.
While living in Vilnius, Saint Faustina met her confessor, Fr. Michael Sopocko a theology professor, who was confessor to her community. He was also to become her spiritual director and helped her carry out her mission on earth, to spread devotion to God’s Divine Mercy. Jesus said of Fr.Sopocko “This is my faithful servant, he will help you carry out my will on earth”. Fr. Michael Sopocko persuaded Saint Faustina to keep a diary, which today reveals the message of Divine Mercy which our Lord wanted her to impart to the world.
In the beginning, the picture of the Divine Mercy Image was kept in the home of Fr. Michael Sopocko, and then in the autumn of 1934 it was brought to the convent of the Bernardine sisters near St. Michael’s church, where Fr.Sopocko was the rector. In her diary, Saint Faustina refers several times to the fact that Jesus appeared to her requesting that she tell her confessor that the picture must be displayed in a church, not in the corridor of the convent. It was first displayed on the Sunday aftert Easter at the Mother of Mercy shrine, then in 1937 again on the Sunday after Easter, the day of Divine Mercy, the picture was finally hung by Fr.Michael Sopocko in St. Michael’s church, Vilnius next to the main altar.
When the Second World War began, the promise of Jesus to protect the places where this picture was venerated gained attention. The archbishop of Vilnius allowed Fr.Sopocko to reveal its history. And it was only after the death of Saint Faustina through reading her diary that the mystery of the divine mercy message was fully revealed.
During the Second World War the devotion to Divine Mercy began to spread rapidly as pictures were circulated widely, it seems especially among soldiers taking part in the fighting.
In 1943 the artist Adolph Hylo painted a second picture of the Image of Divine Mercy, for the congregation of the “Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy” convent in Krakow where Saint Faustina spent her last year.
Since then, many pictures of the Divine Mercy image have been painted for the followers of the devotion to the Divine Mercy around the world, but the original is still considered the most important in the history of this great devotion, as this was the only one painted under the guidance of Saint Faustina who was the only person that actually saw the image in the flesh on that fate filled day in 1931. All the others are only copies of this one, and were never subjected to the severe trials of the people who protected the first painted Image in its early turbulent history.
The original image still remains in Vilnius Lithuania, where the Divine Mercy has been honoured and venerated for hundreds of years through the “ Mother Of Divine Mercy” above the now famous “Gates of Dawn”.
A short history of the many places associated with the famous first painting of the Divine Mercy Image.
In August of 1948 the Soviet government closed St. Michael’s church where Fr.Sopocko was rector and had kept the image exposed in the church. They also took over the convent of the Bernadine sisters where Fr.Sopocko had first kept the image. The contents of St.Michaels were transferred hastily to the Dominican convent nearby.
In 1947 Fr.Michael Sopocko had been transferred to a parish in Poland. He was always very concerned about the safety and whereabouts of the picture and after the closure of St.Michael’s.
Sometime in 1956, the Image of the Divine Mercy was transferred from Vilnius to a church in Belarus, near the Russian border in the village of Nova Ruda.
In 1970 the Soviet authorities closed this church and removed the entire contents out of the church but by some extraordinary miracle they overlooked the Image of Divine Mercy.
Thus for many years this valuable painting which in time would mean so much to the catholic world, remained in this closed and abandoned church, viewed only by the Lord Himself. Many who knew that the picture was still in this closed church were afraid of its deterioration and tried to find a way of getting it back to the safety of Vilnius and Lithuania.
It was only in 1986 after spending thirty years in this little abandoned church in Nova Ruda that the parish priest of St.Theresa’s church at that time, who is now the current archbishop of Moscow Thaddeus Kondrusevic, secretly helped, to get the return of the image of Divine Mercy to Vilnius, it was installed temporarily in the Dominican Chapel in the “Church of the Holy Spirit” which was the best choice at that time, as it was being renovated and therefore it was seen just as part of the renovations and did not raise any suspicions.
It was not given a very prominent position and was just hung on a side wall, not at all an appropiate place for an image given directly to the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, and an Image from which Our Lord promised great graces would flow to a world so much in need.
It was finally his Eminence Cardinal Audrys Backis, who created a permanent home and shrine befitting this extraordinary and most famous painting, a shrine that will be a focal point for all time, for an Image and message of God’s Divine Mercy revealed to Saint Faustina and meant for today’s world, a message that has today captured the attention and interest of Catholics all over the world.
Pope John Paul II said at the Canonization of Saint Faustina:
“Today my joy is truly great in presenting the life and witness of Sr. Faustina Kowalska to the whole Church as a gift of God for our time. By Divine Providence, the life of this humble girl was completely linked with the history of the 20th century, the century we have just left behind. In fact, it was between the First and Second World Wars that Christ entrusted his message of mercy to her. Those who remember, and were witnesses and participants in the events of those years and the horrible sufferings they caused for millions of people, know well how necessary was this message of mercy. Jesus told Sr. Faustina: Humanity will not find peace until it turns with trust to Divine Mercy” (Diary, p. 132).
Sr. Faustina’s canonisation has a particular eloquence; and by this act today, I intend to pass this message on to the new millennium. I pass it on to all people, so that they will learn to know ever better the face of God and the true face of their brethren. What will the years ahead bring us? What will man’s future on earth be like? We are not given to know.
However, it is certain that in addition to new progress, there will unfortunately be no lack of painful experiences. But the light of Divine Mercy, which the Lord in a way wished to return to the world through Sr. Faustina’s charism, will light the way for the men and women of the third millennium.
As the Apostles once did, today too, humanity must welcome into the upper room of history, the risen Christ, who shows the wounds of his Crucifixion and repeats: Peace be with you! Humanity must let itself be touched and pervaded by the Spirit given to it by the risen Christ. It is the Spirit who heals the wounds of the heart, pulls down the barriers that separate us from God and divide us from one another, and at the same time, restores the joy of the Father’s love, and of fraternal unity.
Love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable.
“Where if not in the Divine Mercy can the world find refuge and the light of hope”