Lithuanian Roots: Your Coat-Of-Arms Is Showing: an Outline of Lithuanian Heraldry


Your Coat Of Arms Is Showing: An outline of Lithunian Heraldry

HERALDRY—- AN OLD WORD DERIVED FROM GREEK -— is the art or science having to do with coats-of-arms. Heraldry is closely related with history, archaeology, numismatics, sphragistics (the study of seals), and particularly genealogy. It helps to trace and confirm the origins of families, their connection with each other, and their evolution through history. It often helps to determine the authenticity of dates and names that appear in documents and “family trees.”1997-01-15-LHERITAGE 2

Although identifying devices are known to have existed in ancient Sumer, Greece and Rome, heraldry as we know today is a product of the culture of the Middle Ages. Heraldry had its beginnings in the early 12th century, during the time of the Crusades. The emblems, banners and symbols worn and carried by knights in battle, which represented their respective families, clans or towns, later acquired even more importance when they became an inseparable component of the new craze in Europe — the joust or tournament.

It is often mistakenly assumed that heraldry and coats-of-arms are associated only with feudal lords and families of noble birth. While this was true in the beginning, by the 13th-l4th centuries, countries, provinces, cities, the Church, professional and artisan guilds, and other entities had their own coats-of-arms. By the 15th century many city dwellers, not necessarily of noble origin, also had coats-ofarms. And in later centuries, even peasants could acquire them.

Lithuanians became exposed to heraldry quite early in their history. Since the early 13th century they had to defend themselves against the Livonian Knights who wore a red sword on their capes and shields, and later against the Teutonic Knights who wore a black cross. They also met knights from other European countries who participated alongside the Germans in Crusades against the Lithuanians and their brethren, the Latvians and Prussians. These knights also wore various symbols on their clothes that identified their respective families or the towns or provinces they had come from. But all this effected a negative response from Lithuanians toward Western culture and everything associated with it, including heraldry. Only after Lithuania’s dynastic union with Poland in 1386 and the Battle of Žalgiris (Tannenberg) in 1410, did Lithuanians intensify their relations with Western Europe and began to pay more attention to heraldry and its significance.

The pageantry of the tournament, which so greatly influenced the development of heraldry in western Europe, had little effect on Lithuanian heraldry.
The pageantry of the tournament, which so greatly influenced the development of heraldry in western Europe, had little effect on Lithuanian heraldry.

Nevertheless, during the two turbulent centuries preceding these events, Lithuania and its people did not remain static. The nation evolved and became fertile ground for the birth of new ideas and concepts of honor and morals and the assimilation of many Western cultural manifestations, including the use of coatsof-arms. True coats-of-arms began to appear in Lithuania around the middle of the 14th century.

It wouldn’t be correct to assume that Lithuanian noble families had no identifying symbols prior to the 14th century. But for a symbol or insignia to have true heraldic significance, it must meet certain strict requirements. It must follow specific color, shape, size and other rules. And most of all, it must inheritable, that is, it must be passed down from generation to generation. Most identifying symbols used in Lithuania before the 14th century did not always meet these qualifications. For exam ple, a seal allegedly used in the 13th century by Mindaugas, Lithuania’s first Christian king, had a design resembling a letter “W” with a cross in its middle upper part. King Algirdas used two crossed arrows, his son Skirgaila — something resembling St. Andrew’s Cross. King Vytautas the Great’s personal emblem had a spearhead and a cross. These were regarded more as symbols of ownership with which various possessions, weapons, tools, documents, etc. were marked, rather than coats-of-arms. But by the end of the 14th century, after the rules of heraldry were applied to them, many of the same emblems became true coatsof-arms. They were framed in shields, color was added, and other members of the same family could inherit them. Today these early coats-of-arms are regarded as the true foundation of Lithuanian heraldry. Up until the beginning of the 17th century, several thousand of these true Lithuanian coats-of-arms were known to exist. What made them truly distinctive is that, with a few exceptions, most were made up of linear and geometric compositions. This peculiarity could be the single most important characteristic of Lithuanian coats-of-arms.

The heraldic motif most frequently found in the coats-of-arms of the Lithuanian bajorai (landed gentry) seems to be the arrow. Perhaps this was a reflection of the warlike way of life of the Lithuanian people, who spent a great amount of their time defending and protecting their country and homes. At least 150 bajorai are known to have had the arrow motif in their coats-of-arms, although no two were exactly alike.

Three of the most famous examples of Lithuanian linear heraldry.
Three of the most famous examples of Lithuanian linear heraldry.

Besides the arrow, many other linear and geometric devices were used. The best known is probably the so called “Columns of Gediminas” (Gedimino sailpai), also known as “Gates of Gediminas” (Gedimino vaitai). This emblem was adopted by the famous dynasty began by King Gediminas at the beginning of the 14th cenauy. Gediminas’ grandson Vytautas the Great led the combined Lithuanian-Polish armies to victory at the Battle of Žalgiris under a banner bearing this emblem. The “Columns of Gediminas” was the ruling family’s coat-of-arms until the death of its last member, King Žygimantas Augustas (Sigismundus Augustus) in 1572. Later it began to be regarded as the unofficial emblem of the Lithuanian state, appearing on documents, seals, coins, banknotes and postage stamps.

It would be difficult to decipher what some of the elements in the old Lithuanian coats-of-arms represent. Sometimes they had no meaning at all except to differentiate them from the ones used by the neighbors. It was like the symbols farmers often use to mark their own tools and implements. Many of them were elements the person was more familiar with — a stylized tree, a half-moon, a star, etc.

But it is certain that some elements and symbols from the ancient pagan religion ended up on the coats-ofarms of many families. While in earlier times these symbols were believed to possess magical and protective powers, in later centuries they had become merely decorative elements as well as a link with tradition and the past. The star, half-moon and circle (sun) devices found on many coats-of-arms can be attributed to the era when Lithuanians worshiped the elements of nature. Another device was the “swastika,” an ancient IndoEuropean symbol representing the sun and eternity. A few bajorai families had variations of the swastika as their coats-of-arms.

As a heraldic device, the cross appeared in Lithuania much earlier than the spread of Christianity. The cross symbolized fire and the sun and was often combined with other elements. It is believed that the coat-of-arms of King Jogaila, a double cross popularly known as “Cross of Vytis” (Vycio Kryžius), is also related to Lithuanian linear heraldry.

Another group of Lithuanian coatsof-arms was of Polish origin. Polish heraldry distinguishes itself from that of other European countries by a few peculiarities: One, the same coat-ofarms was used by tens, sometimes hundreds of families, not necessarily related by blood to each other. Second, most Polish coats-of-arms had their own individual names which were derived from localities where they originated, from various battle cries and slogans, from the elements that were included in them, or just from the name of the first owner. The reason for so many Polish families having the same coat-of-arms goes back to pre-heraldic times. When several families living in a particular area — let’s say next to a river or lake — went to war, they all marched under a single banner. When heraldic rules became stabilized, most of these families adopted the same battle banner as their own coat-of-arms.

By the 16th century the unpretentious coat-of-arms of most Lithuanian bajorai families had developed into fanciful creations due to marriages between families and the addition of all sort of ornamentation. But in the above examples one can still see many linear and ancient elements such as crosses, arrows, stars, the half-moon, etc
By the 16th century the unpretentious coat-of-arms of most Lithuanian bajorai families had developed into fanciful creations due to marriages between families and the addition of all sort of ornamentation. But in the above examples one can still see many linear and ancient elements such as crosses, arrows, stars, the half-moon, etc

A coat-of-arms could also be obtained by adoption, a practice which was closely related with the elevation to nobility. When a commoner was elevated to the status of gentry for services rendered or some other reason, the noble family initiating the elevation would also authorize the use of its coat-of-arms.

The peculiarities of Polish heraldry had a definitive influence on Lithuanian heraldry. At the 1413 Treaty at Horodle (Pol. Horodlo), 47 Lithuanian families received Polish coats-of-arms. Those obtaining them first were from the ruling Catholic nobility. Among them were Manvydas, Vaivada (Governor) of Vilnius Palatinate; Jaunutis Valimuntaitis, Vaivada of Trakai Palatinate; Sunigaila, Castellan of Vilnius, and others. Duke Kristinas Astikas received the “Horn” (Pol. Traby) coatof-arms which his descendants, the famous Radvilas family, use to this day.

By accepting Polish coats-of-arms, the privileges of the Lithuanian gentry became equal to those enjoyed by their Polish counterparts who had extracted them from the king. In the beginning, only Catholics were allowed to use coats-of-arms received at Horodle. But soon this privilege was also granted to members of the Orthodox and other faiths. The king realized that he needed the support of all his subjects, not just Catholics. By the Union of Lithuania and Poland at Lublin in 1569, the privileges of the Lithuanian middle and lower gentry were also made equal to those of the Poles. It is worth noting here that in the 16th century, the coats-ofarms owned by the Lithuanian higher gentry were mostly of Polish origin, while those of the middle and lower gentry were still Lithuanian. But by the 18th century, almost all the bajorai had coats-of-arms of Polish origin. This only shows the great influence that Polish politics and culture had upon the Lithuanian landed gentry.

When Lithuanian families received Polish coats-of-arms in the 15th century, they often dropped the names of these coats-of-arms, and sometimes changed their designs or colors as well. As a result, a number of Lithuanian variations of Polish coats-of-arms appeared. But after heraldry rules were firmly established and catalogs of coats-of-arms began to appear in the 17th century, only the original designs were represented and described. Consequently, most bajorai whose coats-of-arms had been modified, dropped the variants and reverted to the original designs.

Because of immigration, a few foreign coats-of-arms came to Lithuania. Some noble families arrived from Germany, others from Italy, Hungary and elsewhere. The largest influx was from Livonia after this country was annexed to Lithuania at the end of the 16th century. The Tyzenhausas, Riomeris and Plateris were some of the better known families from there. During the 18th and 19th centuries many Russian nobles also came, among them the renowned Zubovas. This particular family distinguished itself in the artistic, cultural and political life of Lithuania.

Minority groups who had settled in Lithuania centuries earlier, such as the Tartars, Karaites and Jews, also had their identifying symbols and armorial bearings. The Tartar and Karaite families brought with them insignias called “tamga” which later became their coats-of-arms. Surprisingly, the design elements on these insignias were very similar to those of the Lithuanians. The Jewish families often had a Star of David on their heraldic shields. Those Jews who converted to Christianity were often elevated fo the rank of gentry and were given a coat-of-arms of one of the Lithuanian bajorai families.

Sometimes a member of a city council or other high official, who was not necessarily of noble birth, received a nobility title and an inheritable coats-of-arms. In appearance, these coats-of-arms were very similar to those owned by the bajorai. The new noble was often a wealthy merchant or landowner who, as stated in the nobility documents, had provided some important service. This service could be lending money, building some important structure, or supporting the king or the provincial governor financially or in some other way. In other words, it was nothing more than buying a nobility title and a coat-of-arms. During the 16th century alone, over a hundred titles of nobility are known to have been acquired this way.

Lithuanian heraldry had a few specific peculiarities of its own, not found in other European countries. For example, in most coats-of-arms two colors were predominant: red and white (silver). Blue was occasionally used, and very seldom yellow. No other colors have been found except in coats-of-arms of foreign origin.. Lithuanian heraldry was greatly influenced by national symbolism where most official state emblems (Vytis, Columns of Gediminas, etc.) had only two colors — red and white (silver). The helmet above the shield was simpler, less ornate. It was often decorated with 3-5 large feathers. And because the concepts of knighthood and tournament — so popular in Western Europe — never gained much ground in Lithuania, the coatsof-arms of Lithuanian families, at least in the beginning, were much simpler in their design elements, colors and ornamentation.

This article was based on stories by E. Rimša, K. Bogdanas, and other sources.