Since ancient times, homes and farmsteads, referred to in folk songs as "little manors" , retained immeasurable value for Lithuanians. The works of village and small town craftsmen, including wooden churches, chapels, belfries, windmills and other examples of folk architecture, reflected their ingenuity. However, the farmstead, as an individual's sphere of existence and work was the most important means of self-expression. Dwellings, granaries, cow sheds, barns with orchards, trees and flower gardens formed harmonious groupings which were sensitively integrated into the landscape.
Houses and granaries reflected regional differences most clearly. Lithuanian dwellings consisted of two main varieties: the troba of the Zemaitija region and the pirkia of Aukstaitija. Coastal houses were analogous to trobas, whereas the stubas of Suvalkija bore some resemblance to both trobas and pirkias. Externally, trobas and pirkias could be easily differentiated by their roof and wall plane proportions. In Zemaitija, roofs comprised up to two-thirds of the building's height whereas in Aukstaitija this proportion was only one half. In addition, the porches of pirkias in Aukstaitija were decorated much more heavily. Both building types had entryways on the side facade which divided the structure into two parts and determined the arrangement of the rooms. Trobas had 8 to 10 rooms, whereas pirkias had fewer, but they were always layed-out symmetrically unlike those of the troba. Both the pirkia and the 400 year old troba have common origins with other double-ended houses of Central and Eastern Europe. The numas is a very ancient building type of Zemaitija that has survived into our age. It consisted of a walled structure entered from the end covered with a four-sided roof. This building held living quarters for people and animals under the same roof. Once an important object in Baltic culture, over time it became used as a storage and farm work building.
The passing of time altered the character of Lithuanian villages. The Valakas Reformation of the 16th to 18th centuries organized scattered farmsteads into orderly linear street-oriented villages. In the 19th century this order began crumbling with the allocation of individual farmsteads. This process accelerated after World War I. Today, street -oriented villages only remain in Eastern Lithuania and Dzukija. Few beautifully-landscaped farmsteads survive today as many of their former owners were exiled and their homes deteriorated or were destroyed. Most of the remaining inhabitants were relocated to brick buildings within collective farms.
Lithuanians decorated their houses reservedly and modestly. Porches, windows and other carved pieces were always secondary to overall architectural form. This reserved dignity was reflected within, where colorful cloths, pictures, including paintings and woodcuts purchased from folk craftsmen decorated interior surfaces. Quite a few of these works are found today in churches and chapels.
The spiritual lives of Lithuanian villagers were most clearly reflected through the crosses and shrines they built. Lithuania has been called the land of crosses, and the sculptural elements incorporated into these works attest to the talent and dedication of unschooled peasant artists. Such structures stood in farmsteads, by crossroads, bridges, fords and other dangerous places. They often commemorated accidental deaths, consequently such crosses were quite common in graveyards. People also erected them to ask for help, protection, to commemorate important family events (for example a child's birth or death), to express gratitude, to repent for a crime and so forth.
The sculptural subject of each cross depended on the reason for its building. They were always derived from pictures in churches, the lives' of Saints or the Scriptures. Accordingly, subjects depicting Christ were common: Christ Crucified, the Pensive Christ, Christ of Nazareth and the Baptism of Christ. The Holy Virgin was also pictured in various forms: the Pieta, the Madonna with Infant and similarly. Other saintly figures included St. George and St. Florian, John the Baptist, Anthony and Isadore, St. Anne and St. Agatha, Providence, the Last Supper, the Holy Trinity, Adam and Eve and so forth.
Carved and painted Stations of the Cross graced church and chapel walls. Bright colors and heavy forms of these sculptures lent them sobriety and stability. Although these religious subjects were familiar, each new interpretation revealed fresh spiritual and aesthetic qualities.
In common with sculpture, Lithuanian small-scale architecture was quite varied and creatively constructed. Carved ornamentation on the roofs of wooden shrines and on the crosses themselves attested to the individuality and free expression of each craftsman. A wrought iron cross decorated the top of roofed wooden crosses.
During fifty years of occupation, many old Lithuanian traditions were damaged or interrupted. This was especially true of cross and shrine crafting. Many old examples were destroyed by force or neglect, and building new ones meant risking retribution. This was painfully demonstrated many times during the repeated destruction of the Mount of Crosses. This was once the site of a fortress, of which today only a mound remains standing near Siauliai. For more than a century, people erected crosses on this hill for all sorts of reasons and occasions. Each time Soviet forces destroyed the crosses, they would reappear again overnight.
Following World War II, Lithuanian sculpture and small-scale architecture underwent thematic changes, lacked any religious content. In the 1970's, most common memorial outdoor sculptures, such as those of Ablinga, the Ciurlionis Road and Raganos Mount marked a resurgence of interest in folk art.
The history of Lithuanian folk painting and printmaking was somewhat different; its natural development had already ceased by the early 20th century. Therefore, it was not as hurtful to see this genre reborn in a secular guise as in the case of folk sculpture which had flourished up until the Soviet occupation. Post-war Lithuanian primitivism painting displayed its own unique artistic outlook and use of color. Many talented Lithuanian folk artists attracted notice outside of Lithuania as well as within.
Contemporary fine arts, especially sculpture and small-scale architecture, still retain connections to Lithuanian ethnic culture. This fact attests to the depth and strength of Baltic cultural heritage.
"LITHUANIAN ROOTS", Edited by Rytis Ambrazevicius