Lithuania – the Land of Crosses

M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art
M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

The exhibit of crosses has been arranged in the museum’s inner yard – a space out of reach for visitors.

Lithuanian crosses are a unique phenomenon. In 2001, Lithuanian cross-crafting was included in the UNESCO list of masterpieces of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

A cross is imposed a special significance by Lithuanians. They built crosses in memory of the dead or as symbols of spiritual protection. It is believed that in pagan times wooden pillars (the forerunners of crosses) marked extremely important places at homesteads and burial sites.

Christianity did not take hold easily in Lithuania. The cross was associated with invasions by the crusaders and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. Nevertheless, the second wave of Christianization, successfully started by the Jesuit monks in the 17th century, won villagers over by imparting a new Christian meaning to the old customs and symbols: the signs of the sun and the moon were treated as symbols of the virgin birth of Jesus.

Slowly, chapels and crosses were being erected everywhere – in the fields, by homesteads, near roads and at crossroads as protection for travelers, in forests, cemeteries, and as an adornment of sacred sites. Their abundance is unique.

Iron crosses decorated the pinnacles of churches, belfries, roof pillars, and roadside chapels. The towers of city churches and belfries bore ornate crosses created by experienced craftsmen. Craftsmen who had learned their craft from established city blacksmiths worked in larger villages or manors; however, the majority of village craftsmen were self-taught.

Crosses, suns, moons, stars, lozenges, squares, and circles are all Baltic signs that symbolize the Universe, never-ending motion, and the relation between the earth and the sky. Ecclesiastical motifs (the monograms of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the chalice, the Eye of Providence, and the heart which symbolized Christian love and hope) began to appear with the widespread of Christianity, and in the 19th – the early 20th centuries, they gradually intertwined with the ancient signs.

Here on display, there is an extremely rare chapel made from a hollowed oak trunk the inside of which was bleached, and the cavities were caulked with clay – a statuette of a saint was placed inside. The Lithuanian Christian tradition of placing a saint in the chapel named Baublys is a direct reference to our pagan roots when the hollow trunk of an old oak tree was worshipped.

It is believed that cross-crafting flourished in the 19th – early 20th centuries but this may be based only on the fact that they were beginning to be drawn and photographed then. At that time, the cross became a symbol of national identity apart from its religious symbolism – it became a symbol of silent resistance against invaders. The tsarist Russian government banned crosses from being erected or repaired – they were cut down and destroyed. Crosses were only allowed to be erected in churchyards and cemeteries. The Soviet authorities treated them even more ruthlessly but the more crosses were destroyed, the more abundantly people rebuilt them. Thus, lots of hills of crosses began to appear in Lithuania. Cross-craftsmen did not usually carve sculptures, they were engaged only in decorating crosses. Statuettes of saints were carved by god-carvers. In the 1920s, cross-crafting became an object of interest among artists, historians, and museum specialists, so the subject is abundantly referenced.