The only provincial city in Lithuania with an Old Town made of brick and stone is located in the geographical center of the country at where the river Nevėžis and its tributaries Dotnuvėlė, Smilga and Obelis come together. Kedainiai first appeared in written sources in 1372 and developed quite fast towards the end of that century. According to the legends the town owns its name to the wealthy merchant Keidangen, who came from Kuršas and established a small fishing village.
The Gothic Church of St. George (Šėtos Street 22), which replaced a pagan sanctuary ca 1445-1460, has a yard with a lovely view of the river and the Old Town on the other side. In some places the walls of the church (Reformed in 15th century, Catholic as of 1627) are 1.35 meters thick, indicating that it was once cast in a defence role. The town flourished under the family Radziwill from the mid-15th century. It became the administrative center of Samogitia in 1535, and one of the country’s first and largest Reformation centers during the last half of the 16th century. Increased trade along the Kaunas-Riga road and other favourable conditions brought Hansa merchants and European craftsmen to the town in the 15th century.
It acquired Magdeburg city rights and a coat of arms in 1590. The lively commercial and artisan city had six marketplaces, and still retains some of its old sites and names – Didžioji, Senoji, Jonušavos, Knypavos markets. A bridge connecting the two parts of the city was built across the Nevėžis in 1602. A Calvinist school (1625), restructured into a high school in 1629. A printing-house issuing Reformation literature was established in 1652. Orthodox believers, Jews, German Lutherans and Scottish Reformationists (attracted to the area by its tax exemptions) settled here in the first half of the 17th century and changed Kedainiai into a multi-ethnic city.
History of Kedainiai from the 17th century
Lithuania became a Swedish protectorate under a treaty signed in this city in 1655, but the city did not escape serious damage during the Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century. The Radziwill palace was destroyed and its furniture, books, collections of art and rare items dispersed. The city was also hard hit by the plague in 1709-1711. At the end of the 18th century, the city, like other urban centers throughout the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lost its autonomy after the collapse of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth.
The counts Czapski acquired the Kedainiai estate in 1811, but lost it in 1864 when Marian Czapski was accused of collaborating with rebels. After an auction in 1866 to defence engineer and tsarist army general Eduard Totleben became the new owner. He rebuilt the estate, adding a Moorish style minaret (1878) in the park in honour of the Crimean War. The minaret (S. Dariaus and S. Girėno St. 5) rises above the treetops past the railway station to this day, but the other estate buildings collapsed at the end of the Second World War. Industrialization increased in 1871 with the construction through the city of a railway line from Liepaja, and by the end of the 19th century 6,000 people lived in Kedainiai.
In an independent Lithuania the city became a district center with a high school, one Jewish and three Lithuanian primary schools, a teatchers’ seminary, museum and library. During the Soviet occupation a chemical plant, metalwork factory, sugar factory and other enterprises were built here. Independence at the end of the 20th century did not overburden this city, and it continues to be well-managed and cared for.
Kedainiai Sights of interest
The most interesting part of the Kedainiai Old Town concentrates itself around Didžiosios Rinkos (Great Market) Square. The Old Town Hall (Didžioji st.1) is one of three such buildings still standing in Lithuania. Built ca 1654 and renovated many times since then, it now houses administration offices and art exhibition.
The 17th-19th century buildings around the town hall were once the homes of the major, school professors, artisans and merchants. In the square – a monument to marshal Janusz Radziwill, hetman of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and initiator of the union between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Sweden.
The nearby Evangelical Reformed Church (1631-1653, rebuilt in 1757; Senoji St.1) was funded by Christopher and Janusz Radziwill. Its strict fortress-like features are some-what softened by four small towers, and wall embellishments. It has a reconstructed ornately carved manneristic style oak pulpit, and a vault with the Radziwill family mausoleum and 17th century Metalwork sarcophagi, including the restored caskets of Christopher (“the Thunderer”) and Janusz Radziwill, created in the workshop of Torun goldsmith J.C.Bierpfag. The wooden Church of St. Joseph (Radvilų St.10) was constructed by members of the old Carmelite Order ca 1766, and has the same style belfry.
The monastery was built ca 1709. Converted into a warehouse in 1963, the sanctuary was re-opened in 1991 after restoring it with surviving fragments of 18th century. Altars, and beautiful paintings with ornate raiment of St. Joseph and of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus. The Carmelite monastery was closed during the tsarist period, and later converted into a military barracks. After restoration work in 2000 it was given to the Kedainiai regional museum, and now exhibits testimonials from the time of the Radziwill epoch and the 1863 insurrection, as well as examples of estate art, and crosses created by the famous “god-maker” Vincas Svirskis.
An inner courtyard in the restored (2000-2002) Gymnasium Illustre (Didžioji St. 62) established by Christopher Radziwill is reminiscent of the Vilnius alumni House.
Two baroque style synagogues, a summer and a winter one (1837), still stand in the Senoji (Old) Market Square. The restored winter synagogue is now occupied by a multicultural center offering concerts, conferences, and an exhibition dedicated to the Kėdainiai Jewish community. In the 19th century the local Jews were known for growing cucumbers – a tradition which the town carries on to this day. A plaque on the synagogue at Smilgos St. 13 dedicated to the celebrated 18th century Vilna Gaon who studied the Talmud in Kėdainiai is a reminder of this town‘s once flourishing Jewish community.
Modern day Kedainiai
Billowing white on a small hill at the edge of the Old Town is Christopher Radziwill‘s founded Evangelical Lutheran Church (1629-1640; Vokiečių St. 7). A monumental four-tier tower in the shape of a square was added to the front of the building in 1714. In 1845 the sanctuary was restored, but with the decline of the parish fell into ruin during the first half of the 20th century. A plaque in memory of military engineer and professor at the Kedainiai gymnasium Adam Freytag, astrologer and personal physician to Janusz Radziwill, would show that he may have been buried in the church.
All that remains of the Orthodox sanctuaries is the stone Christ Church of the Transfiguration (Gedimino st. 2), established in 1869 in a reconstructed building given to that congregation by Marian Czapski. The wooden Orthodox Church of St. Andrew, built by Janusz Radziwill in 1645 for his second wife, the Moldavian princess Maria Lupu, is now part of the ethnographic museum in Rumšiškės.
The painter Janina Morkutė-Marks has a private museum (2001) in a homestead on the former Juozapavas domain (beginning of 20th century) situated on the Smilga River in the north part of the Old Town. It offers an exhibition of her American pop and psychedelic painting from the 1960s and 1970s, and works by other artist. Writings by Juozas Paukštelis and other local authors can be found in a memorial museum (1988) in the writer’s former home at Vydūno St. 14.
Post-war partisans used the thick-walled tower of the former Zabiela family estate, at Labūnava, along the road to Babtai, 8 km southeast of the city, as their head-quarters.