Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black – a symbol of revival and cultural unity

The personality of Duke Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black (04 02 1515 – 29 05 1565) must be commemorated in 2015 as a symbolic figure of the epoch, state and its capital. This is so because of his 500th birth anniversary, which will be widely celebrated around the Central and Eastern European region, and the notable services of the whole Radziwiłł family to the city of Vilnius, and Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine, which base their identity on the culture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was born in 1515 in Nesvizh (GDL city, now Belarus), to the family of Jonas Radziwiłł and Ona Kiškaitė. Like many Lithuanian aristocrats of the time, he was educated at the manor of King Sigismund I the Old in Krakow. There he befriended Prince Sigismund Augustus. When the latter became Grand Duke of Lithuania, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black occupied various positions in the Palace and the State: in 1544-1565 he was Grand Marshal of the Palace, in 1550-1565 – Chancellor of the GDL, and in 1551-1565 – Voivode of Vilnius. In 1548 he received the title of Duke from the King of Czech state and Hungary, the future Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand, and became Duke of Olyka (GDL city, now Ukraine) and Nesvizh.

Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was a talented politician, a gifted diplomat, a shrewd administrator, and a very learned man. He greatly contributed to the religious, cultural, educational, scientific, and artistic development of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and this has to do with Protestantism. N. Radziwill accepted Protestantism in about 1553. This was an important step, not only for him, but also for the society and the country. Both in Europe and Lithuania the foundations of an educated democratic society were laid by Protestants. Those European countries, where the Protestants still constitute the majority, have high work ethics, a serious approach to education, and respect democracy.

In 1557 Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black called the first Calvinist synod in Vilnius, which led to the establishment of the Lithuanian Calvinist community. The first institutional library in Lithuania, which belonged to the Calvinist Synod, was founded in Vilnius (the second library – Vilnius Jesuit Academy Library – was set up in 1570). In 1558, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black set up a school for the Calvinist youth of Vilnius in his palace. In the same year, in Lithuanian Brest, he founded the first permanent printing-house in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1563 it published the famous Brest Bible. The translation of the Scripture into Polish, prepared by Lithuanian and Polish Reformers, was the first publication of the Bible’s translation into a spoken language in Lithuania and Poland. Mikołaj Radziwiłł bequeathed money for the establishment of a Protestant University. He died in Vilnius. In 2009 he was solemnly re-buried in Dubingiai, in the Radziwill pantheon established in the place of the former Reformed church.

Other members of the family and his descendants also were concerned with culture. His oldest son Nicholas Christopher Radziwiłł the Orphan (02 08 1549 - 28 02 1616), wrote a best-selling book “The Journey to Jerusalem” (Latin edition - 1601, German edition - 1603, Polish edition - 1607, Russian edition - 1787, Lithuanian edition - 1990), organized mapping of Lithuania and funded the publishing of the first map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1613). Furthermore, A famous theatre was established in the palace of N. Radziwill the Black’s great-grandson Michał Kazimierz “Rybenko” Radziwiłł (13 06 1702 - 03 01 1762). The theatre staged plays written by M. K. Radziwiłł’s wife Franciszka Urszula Radziwiłłowa (13 02 1705 – 23 05 1753). Franciszka Urszula was the most famous female playwright in Lithuania and Poland in the eighteenth century. 

Vilnius, Lithuanian Brest, Nesvizh and Olyka – these are just a few outstanding cultural centers  established by Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black. But there are many other cities that still remember the Radziwiłł dynasty, among them in Lithuania are Biržai, Dubingiai and Kėdainiai, in Belarus – Mir, Lubcha and Slutsk, in Ukraine - Bilyj Kamin, Lvov and Zhovkva, and in Poland – Biala Podlaska, Goniądz and Węgrów. Today they talk about the cultural unity between countries of the Eastern European Region: Lithuania, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine. Once Vilnius becomes the World Book Capital, it will certify this to the world, and Minsk and Kiev will support us in that mission.


Sigitas Narbutas
Doctor of Arts, Literary historian, translator

Lithuanian Publishers Association

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