Table of Contents Hide
- Fighting for Independence: The Vital Role of Lithuanian Cross-Crafting in Keeping the Nation from Falling Apart
- The Hill of Crosses – A Sacred Place that Proves Faith Knows No Limits and Censorship
- The Different Styles of Lithuanian Cross-Crafting
- Traditional Motives in Lithuanian Cross-Crafting
- Final Food for Thought
The very first mention of the country of Lithuania dates back to more than one thousand years ago in 1009.
Although Lithuania covers a relatively small territory, it is the largest of the three Baltic States, namely Poland, Belarus, and Latvia.
Meanwhile, Lithuania has a population of 2 848 000 people based on the census from 2017.
The incredibly rich culture and spectacular traditions that are saturated with the unbreakable spirit of the locals have placed Lithuania in the spotlights of UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In 2008, Lithuanian cross-crafting received a well-deserved inscription under the aegis of UNESCO.
In its early history, Lithuania used to be among the largest and the most powerful states in the entire continent of Europe.
Moreover, it was a place where overseas trades and crafts prospered. However, it was not only the times of glory that mark the history of the country. Instead, there were centuries of darkness and despair.
But deep within the hearts and minds of the Lithuanian people, their collective consciousness was kept alive.
Thus, century after century, the people were patiently walking towards regaining their freedom, and as we are about to find out in this article, cross-crafting has been one of the secret weapons that saved the Lithuanian nation’s collective psyche from destruction and oblivion.
Fighting for Independence: The Vital Role of Lithuanian Cross-Crafting in Keeping the Nation from Falling Apart
Lithuania was officially formed as a country in the middle of the 13th century, although the earliest mention of the Baltic country dates back to the 11th century.
It was in the middle ages of the 15th century when Lithuania reached one of its most prosperous periods. In 1569, the country entered into a union with Poland, forming the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, also known as “Republic of the Two Nations.”
Video by Ollie Bye – Rise and Fall of Poland-Lithuania
In the 18th century, Lithuania became a part of the Russian Empire.
Later on during the reign of the Soviet Union, and in particular, through the 1940s – 1990s Lithuanians were subjected to severe religious restrictions. In fact, building crosses were strictly prohibited by the occupants of the country.
The most ironical part of the religious-related restrictions can be attributed to the fact that Lithuania was the last among all the rest of the European countries to abandon paganism for Catholicism.
The religious transition took place in the 14th century. But the pagan beliefs are still deeply rooted and intricately connected to the official religion of the locals, where the postulates of the Roman Catholic Church are being dominant as opposed to Lutheran Catholic Church.
Video by NowThis World – What Is Paganism?
Raising their silenced voice throughout the reign of the Soviet Union Regimen when religion was banned, Lithuanians began erecting crosses tenaciously all across the country.
At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most amazing places in the world was born in Lithuania – the Hills of Crosses near Šiauliai.
The Hill of Crosses – A Sacred Place that Proves Faith Knows No Limits and Censorship
Lithuanian cross-crafting has always been deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of the local people.
Crosses were built and placed in various places throughout the country in order to mark a location of great spiritual significance, to pay a tribute to those who have passed away, as well as to ask for divine blessings and protection.
The crafting of the crosses was a means of expressing gratitude and begging for grace and forgiveness.
However, since the Lithuanian people were occupied by the Russians, their most sacred symbol of Faith and Unity was about to be put to a test.
Soon after a Lithuanian uprising that failed in 1863, putting up crosses was strictly banned by the Tsarist Russian authorities.
During the reign of the Soviet Union in 1961, the Hill of Crosses was completely burned down after being bulldozed first. But the fact that the local people could have to pay with their lives if they kept putting up crosses did not stop them from doing so.
Instead, in the cover of darkness, Lithuanians would keep erecting crosses on the Hill of the Crosses.
Video by Journeyman Pictures – Hill of Crosses – Lithuania
Despite the political danger, each time after the Hill of Crosses was burned down by the Russian authorities (which happened four more times after the first big bulldozing mission in 1961), the natives would rebuild the site.
The fact that the crosses kept disappearing just to re-appear once again speaks up louder than any words. It highlights the thirst for the independence of the Lithuanian nation.
Moreover, it highlights the unbreakable spirit of the Lithuanian nation that never gave up the core values of the collective psyche regardless of the repressions.
It wasn’t before September 6, 1991, that Lithuania finally received the official recognition for its independence by the Soviet Union since the first independence proclamation from 1990 was not recognized.
Video by National Geographic – Go Inside Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses | National Geographic
In an interview for Reuters, master cross-crafter Adolfas Teresius shared that the reason why he became a cross-crafter is that he personally saw the crosses on the Hill of Crosses being torn down just to re-appear once again.
“For me, cross-crafting is not only important as a lasting form of national art but is also a symbol of our resistance,” adds Teresius.
Furthermore, in an interview for National Geographic, Rūta Stankuvienė, who is the director of Šiauliai Tourism Information Center shares yet another inspiring point of view on the sacred power of the Hill of Crosses:
“It doesn’t matter who you are, what religious confession you follow, or at what time you come, since the canonical rituals of the Church are not so important here. The doors of this place are always open because there are no doors at all. Here, nature mingles with culture, including any person in the completely unique experience.”Rūta Stankuvienė
Video by Jacob Laukaitis – What is LITHUANIA? 🇱🇹(My Country You Know Nothing About)
The Different Styles of Lithuanian Cross-Crafting
The folk art tradition of Lithuanian cross-craftinghas been communicated and transmuted only verbally, as well as through live examples. But it has never been taught in schools or any specialized workshops.
This extraordinary trait of Lithuanian cross-crafting makes the ancient traditions and the associated customs even more valuable as they are so deeply rooted in both the lifestyle, as well as the consciousness of the natives.
However, this doesn’t mean that the history of Lithuanian cross-crafting was not marked by the gifted hands of master woodcarvers such as Vincas Svirksis.
Up-to-date, examples of Vincas Svirksis’ distinct cross-crafting style can be seen at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vilnius.
Probably the most distinguishable characteristic of Svirksis’ wooden crosses is the fact that they are made out of a tree chunk with the roots looking up as figures of saints twine around the very trunk of the cross, as opposed to the common practice of placing the figures on the façade of the cross.
But most importantly, the types of traditional Lithuanian crosses are not limited to only crosspiece crosses. Apart from the crosspiece crosses, there are also pillar-type crosses, as well as pillared shrines.
Interestingly, historians believe that the tradition of crafting pillar shrines out of wood is rooted in the pre-Christian period of the country.
Lithuanians used to build small wooden houses to pay a tribute to the home spirits. So when the Christian religion replaced the pagan beliefs of the natives, the Christian saints appeared as an important part of the pillared shrines as a somewhat natural extension of the ancient tribute to the home spirits.
For instance, the image of Saint Isidore who is the patron of farmers can be often found in pillared shrines that are placed right next to fields of crops and/or farms. On the other hand, the image of Saint George who is considered the patron of families and households can be often seen in pillared shrines placed right next to a local house.
Traditional Motives in Lithuanian Cross-Crafting
Placed across various locations within the country but particularly concentrated near the roads and homesteads of Aukštaitija, Žemaitija, and Dzūkija, the traditional motives on Lithuanian crosses are just as various as the locations where the crosses are placed.
For examples, some crosses are slender, and the decorative carvings may resemble fine lace. Meanwhile, other crosses are rather thick, and the multiple intertwined figures make the masterpieces appear more like sculptures than crosses.
Video by UNESCO – Cross-crafting and its Symbolism
Vegetative motives that inspired the craftsmen of Lithuanian crosses include but are not limited to the depiction of birds, the tree of life, as well as flowers. The Sun is yet another popular motif that is believed to have special powers.
Final Food for Thought
Lithuanian cross-crafting is not merely a form of folk art, and it is not merely a well-preserved tradition that dates back to many centuries ago.
Instead, it is a living fossil in the Lithuanian history that points out to the imperishable Faith, spiritual strength, and Hopes for a brighter, better tomorrow that kept the Lithuanian nation alive in times of darkness, repression, and severe restrictions.
When we said good-bye that time—because you
Wanted to defend yourself and not love—
Do you remember, on the top of the sickly
Chestnut tree the black thrush shrieked.
Inside the rooms, I could hear the speechless rustling
Of clothing. I did not know
If one day I would be afraid to meet you
Eye to eye because right now I’m afraid.
Not only of you, but of myself, and everything
That was ours: Our past.
I live alone here and busy myself
With household work done alone and with my own
Life and death. I measure the oil
In time that is not cramped by the clock and the calendar.
Sometimes I go out to the town,
Where no one ever looks you in the eye,
And no one ever answers.
They are only open
In the cemetery, where indiscreet
Crosses and sedge born of the dryness
Give away their names, but already too late.
That’s why I decided to stay here,
Where everything is like huge
Frozen eyes that stare at me day and night.
But being forced to be quiet is much easier
Than the freedom to pray to foreign gods.
(There are no other kind). I sometimes cry: not over you—
But over me: that I never even knew anything
About you except your name,
And that until now you’ve left me only your voice
From across the river, which I can’t lean on
In my loneliness.“When We Say Good-Bye That Time” – Written in 1966, by Vytautas Bložė Translated by Laima Vincė.
Nowadays, Lithuanian couples who get married would place a cross on the Hill of Crosses as a significant part of the traditional ceremonies that celebrate marriage.
“We put up our cross as a plea to God to protect our family, and to send us a happy and joyful life,” a local resident shares in an interview for Reuters.
Beautifully and complexly intertwined in the deepest corners of the collective psyche of the nation, Lithuanian crosses serve like a bridge that connects the ancient pagan beliefs with the Catholic religion of the locals, melting all boundaries away.
Money, and especially coins, food, wine, and water are part of the offerings that are placed right next to the wooden crosses (or inside if the cross is stylized as a pillar cross or a pillared shrine) to ask for the blessings and the protection of the Lord and the Saints.
Once carved and/or sculpted, the cross would be consecrated by a priest, and it is then that it is believed to acquire a unique sacred significance. In the old days, oak was the preferred type of wood for the crafting of these crosses.
The crosses that range from one to five meters in height, although there are no strict rules or limitations regarding their size and decoration, have become the symbol of Lithuanian national and religious identity.
Sometimes adorned with small roofs and/or various tiny sculptures made out of wood and often painted over – the multiple styles and motives of Lithuanian cross-crafting pose no limits over the people’s imagination. After all, Love and Faith are highly personal values, and anyone is free to feel them through his own heart and mind.
Lithuanian cross-crafting has become the emblem of a nation that has learned one of the most valuable lessons of a lifetime the hard way but never ever gave up. “Freedom is the oxygen of the soul” – Moshe Dayan.