President Dalia Grybauskaitė

The Lithuanian State Coat of Arms

Gules, a knight in full armour, riding on a horse, all argent, caparisoned azure, holding in the dexter hand sword above head in fess of the second, hilted and pommelled or, and at his sinister shoulder shield of the third, a double cross of the fourth; the horseshoes and bit, stirrup, spur and metal buckles or.

Lithuania's knight, Vytis, is one of the oldest state emblems in Europe and one of the few whose symbolism was taken not from dynastic arms, as in the majority of European countries, but from ducal portrait seals. It was not by chance that in the beginning of the 16th c. a chronicler described Lithuania's coat of arms as one indicating a mature ruler capable of defending his homeland with a sword.

In the Middle Ages, the image of the mounted ruler knight was perhaps the most favoured symbol for seals; it represented both the sovereignty and defender of the land. Many such seals existed in neighbouring countries. In Lithuania, the earliest depicted knight can be found on the 1366 seal of Grand Duke Algirdas; it no longer exists. In 1386, when Jogaila Algirdaitis (of the Algirdas family) made the knight a heraldic figure by using him as a motif on a shield, the personal portrait of the ruler acquired a common meaning. Initially the knight symbolized the State's most important territory of Vilnius (or more precisely, that part of Lithuania that was directly ruled from Vilnius), and was depicted holding a lance: whoever ruled Vilnius also governed the entire country. Jogaila's cousin, Duke Vytautas of Trakai, had sought the throne and had replaced the standing warrior, a lower rank image used on seals up to that time, with the mounted knight circa 1382-1384. It was in fact during the rule of Vytautas (1392-1430) that the mounted knight became the emblem of the entire State - the powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania - which he had created. This is clearly depicted on the throne seal of Vytautas which appeared at the beginning of the 15th c. Surrounded by the arms of his subordinate territories, in one hand the ruler holds the sword, symbol of ducal authority, and in the other a shield charged with a knight - thereby symbolizing the state of Lithuania (knight with sword), in the same way that the sovereign globe represents the king.

One can speculate why the portrait of the ruler, and not the double cross of Jogaila or the Columns of the Family Gediminas became the state symbol. First of all, it must be remembered that the coat of arms of the ruler, and later of the state, had international significance and needed to be clearly understood by all. At that time the heraldry of Europe was dominated by symbols borrowed from the world of flora and fauna: king of beasts - the lion, of birds - the eagle, queen of flora - the lily, represented emperors, kings, dukes, and the territories which they ruled. Such devices had clearly defined meanings: the lion indicated strength, noble-heartedness and severity, the eagle courage, a sharp mind and insight, the lily beauty and majesty. These arms were much more expressive and comprehensible than the lineal heraldry of the Columns of the Family Gediminas, or even the double cross. Secondly, at the time when Lithuania's coat of arms was being formed, its people had been fighting to the death for over a hundred years in an effort to preserve their statehood. War became the daily affair not only of the rulers, but of every Lithuanian in the land. The greatest burden lay on the warrior and his constant companion, his horse - both of whom were extolled in folk song and legend. The mounted knight as defender of the land was a clear signal to both natives and foreigners, and as a symbol perhaps best reflected the existing political situation. In this way the portrait of the ruler and defender of the country became the emblem of a state determined to resolve its destiny by the sword.

The colours and design of the coat of arms were established at the beginning of the 15th c., or perhaps even earlier: the mounted knight in argent armour with sword raised above his head, on a field of red; an azure shield charged with a golden double cross at his left shoulder (under the rule of the Kęstutis family a red shield with the golded Columns of the Family Gediminas); the horse's bridle, leather bands and short saddle-cloth coloured azure. The arms utilized both metals, and the two most important mediaeval emblem colours: red represented the materialistic, earthly values of life, courage, and blood; azure signified the spiritual, divine values of heaven, godly wisdom, and intelligence. After the Union of Lublin in 1569, when the joint state of Poland-Lithuania was formed, the early emblem colours began to change - probably under the influence of the Polish coat of arms (red-white-yellow). Sometimes the saddle-cloth was designated red or purple, the leather bands golden; the azure shield with its golden cross remained fairly stable.

In Lithuania's early heraldry the knight was usually depicted as if ready to leap to the defence. In the mid-16th c., after Lithuania's emblem acquired the name Pogoń, Pogonia, Pogonczyk from Polish heraldry, the old image of defender of the land gradually became that of a knight pursuing and chasing the enemy. In the 17th c., in an attempt to find a Lithuanian equivalent for the Polish Pogonia, Konstantinas Sirvydas gave it two definitions: waykitoias (the chaser) and waykimas (chasing). The Polish Pogonia thus became the Lithuanian Waykimu, a name used throughout the 19th c. In 1885 Jonas Basanavičius nicknamed the knight Vaikas (Child - from vaikyti - to chase). The term Vytis was applied at the end of the 19th c., and came from the word for Lithuania's noble knights and horsemen - vytis - created in the middle of that century by the historian Simonas Daukantas. It was perhaps Mikalojus Akelaitis who first christened Lithuania's emblem Vitis in Aušra (Dawn), in 1884. Up until the 1930s the emblem was known as Vytis on the basis of the Polish version (to chase, pursue), and only later was its meaning connected to the word vytis as coined by Daukantas to represent the knight.

The Lithuanian coat of arms which represented the State for more than four centuries was abolished in 1795, when Lithuania came under the rule of the Russian Empire for a period which would last for more than 100 years. The historic knight did not, however, disappear entirely: on April 6, 1845, Emperor Nicholas I approved the use of the knight for the coat of arms of the province of Vilnius. An armoured knight was depicted galloping on a white horse across green land, on a field of red. The knight's argent shield was charged with a golden Orthodox cross; the horse's saddle-cloth was coloured violet with golden trim. During the latter half of the century the green land disappeared, the Orthodox cross was coloured red, and the saddle-cloth became longer and acquired three points - it, like the bridle and other leather bands were coloured purple with golden trim.

Following the downfall of the Russian Empire in World War I, Lithuania proclaimed an Act of Restoration of the state on February 16, 1918, and the historic knight of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania became the emblem of the Lithuanian Republic. The first projects for a coat of arms were designed by Tadas Daugirdas and Antanas Žmuidzinavičius; devices drawn by Adomas Varnas, Adomas Galdikas, and other artists were also used. The most popular was the romanticized version created by Žmuidzinavičius; its prototype was undoubtedly a 1910 drawing by Tadeusz Dmochowski, reminiscent of the coat of arms used during the last years of the province of Vilnius. Only Dmochowski depicted the knight more or less historically, while Žmuidzinavičius rendered him as if flying through the air. The horse also acquired a golden bridle, bands, and a long golden saddle-cloth with three flowing tails. To further embellish the coat of arms, the artist decorated the shield with a golden bordure inset with heraldic stones, ornamentation which was new to Lithuania. Spaniards and Portuguese were especially fond of bordures, which were usually designated for a secondary, subordinate lineage, and were totally inappropriate for the arms of a sovereign state.

The romantic coat of arms created by Žmuidzinavičius was highly criticized, and a special Commission for the Establishment of State Arms was formed in 1929. Its most active members were the archaeologist General Vladas Nagevičius, art critic Paulius Galaunė, artist Mstislavas Dobužinskis, historians Ignas Jonynas and Augustinas Janulaitis, and other known individuals. They worked for five years. Dobužinskis created a project based on the iconography of Lithuania's ancient coins and seals, but did not solve perhaps the most important question - the colours for the coat of arms. The principal colours of the argent knight on a field of red did survive, but the knight's shield was also coloured red, and the double cross, horseshoes, bridle and other accoutrements golden. As it was not clear how to justify superimposing golden on a horse argent, reference was made to the "golden bridles" and "golden horseshoes" of folk songs. Colours and poor composition of the knight (with an overabundance of empty red field) aside, the emblem created by Dobužinskis was more archaic and better founded historically than the version by Žmuidzinavičius which had been in use until then. Although the new emblem was not officially confirmed, it was used in certain instances. The evolution of state heraldry was suspended for half a century by the Soviet occupation in 1940, at which time a ratified Soviet constitution replaced the knight with a sickle, hammer, five-pointed star and other Soviet attributes.

The Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania (Constituent Assembly) legalized the historical emblem of the State of Lithuania, the Vytis, on March 11, 1990 - the same day that it proclaimed the Act of Restoration of the Independent State of Lithuania. The first post-war design of the Lithuanian state arms was confirmed soon after, on March 20. It was based on the cast image of the Vytis which had been created for Lithuanian coins in 1925 by the sculptor Juozas Zikaras. The colours of the coat of arms were designated on April 10: the mounted knight in argent armour, holding a raised sword argent above his head, a red shield charged with a golden double cross at his left shoulder, on a field of red. The sword hilt and sheath braces, the knight's spur, the bridle bit, horseshoes, bands, and their decorations were all golden. The colours were taken from the emblem created in 1934, though in fact the standard of the coloured coat of arms confirmed by the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania on May 17 depicted the shields purple. This coat of arms became a symbol of the period of transition, and seemed to emphasize that the State of Lithuania would carry on its pre-war traditions. At the same time, the Lithuanian Heraldry Commission was assigned to prepare a more accurate version of the device, one based on historical and iconographic sources. On September 4, 1991, the Supreme Council confirmed a second version of the coat of arms; used to this day, it differs from the preceding one in that it incorporates the historical colours and metals (red, azure, argent, gold) from the time of Grand Duke Vytautas. The new coat of arms also strives to embrace the original idea of the emblem, i.e., to depict a knight ready to use the sword to defend his country and state. Restoring the idea of the historical colours and the ancient device means that Lithuania is not only inheriting and carrying on its pre-war traditions, but those of the sovereignty of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well.

From: Edmundas Rimša, The Heraldry of Lithuania, Baltos lankos publishers, 2008.

Last updated 2016.03.18 10:49