Lonely in a Meadow on the River Bank – Who Built the Old Zapyškis Church?


The construction of churches in Lithuania began at the end of the fourteenth century, after Christianity was accepted in 1387. At first they were made of wood and, later on, brickwork was introduced. The Old Church of John the Baptist in Zapyškis is one of those made of bricks. It is one of the oldest Late Gothic churches in Lithuania. It is believed that this house of worship was built in 1578. It is interesting that the church is built in the middle of a meadow on the left bank of the Nemunas. Who built it there and why?

The history of this old church in Zapyškis raises a number of questions for scholars. In Lithuania, Gothic churches were usually built in big cities where there was a large population and therefore many believers. It was also easier to get building materials and hire masons. It is still unclear who decided to build a church in Zapyškis. The town of Zapyškis itself was founded by the nobleman Jonas Sapiega, who received the land near Dievogala stream and peasants from the Grand Duke Alexander II in 1502. It is believed that the construction of the church was started by his son Povilas Sapiega, who ruled the town from 1555. Why? The most popular guess is that Zapyškis was expected to become an influential city, and a commercial centre since there was a lot of trade with Kaunas at that time. This is confirmed by archeological finds: artefacts and historical sources testify that there were many houses around the church in the past, it was in the very center of the town. However, the constant floods of the Nemunas forced the residents to move further away from the river. And so the church was left alone.

It is also believed that the noble Sapiega family, who were Orthodox Christians (the second largest branch of Christianity in Lithuania), built a Catholic church so that Catholics who lived in Zapyškis could pray there – and most of them lived in the town. This perfectly illustrates that in Lithuania people of different faiths lived in harmony together and cared for each other.

The old church of Zapyškis is important not only because of its antiquity and the riddle of its origin, but also because of its unique architecture. It is quite large but doesn’t have a single tower. There is a peculiar rectangular design pattern on the facade of the church and its niches – cavities of the wall – get narrower as they rise. The interior is decorated quite modestly. In this way, the architecture of Zapyškis church combines the late Gothic style in harmony with Baroque elements. Why did this happen?

The church has been renovated several times. It was first restored after the war in 1655–1661 and rebuilt again at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries – that is when the Baroque features appeared in the architecture of the building. It is also important to remember that Gothic and Baroque styles are very different: Gothic buildings are heigh, as if reaching up, with pointed arches, and the Baroque style is very decorative, with a preference for massive. The church of Zapyškis is still being renovated.

Religious services at the church stopped in 1901, but this didn’t mean that the building was abandoned. The church is visited by tourists, and there are concerts during the Pažaislis Music Festival organized there in the summer. In 2002, the Old Church of St. John the Baptist was declared a cultural monument and is now protected by the state.