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Crosses and chapels

At the turn of 20th century German, French and Polish scholars recognized wooden crosses and chapels as one of the most typical features of Lithuanian culture. To this day many publications on Lithuanian folk art attach great importance to these objects. Most of the Lithuanian crosses and chapels are very artistic. They used to be erected at farmsteads, streams, roads, at the end of a field and other places. They used to be erected on various occasions - the birth of a child, a sudden death, the beginning of the construction of a farmstead and other such events.

At the beginning of the 20th century crosses and chapels in Zemaitija were spaced by several score of meters. Lithuanian crosses and chapels were more ornamented than in other countries. For a long time they were indicators of the farmers' wealth and social position. Young girls used to be judged by their flower gardens and the crosses in their farmsteads.

Most crosses were built with a single cross bar, but there were also crosses with two cross bars, especially in Zemaitija. The latter type of crosses were usually erected in times of plague or other great disasters. Ornamentation depended on the form of the cross. Crosses in western Zemaitija were the least ornamented.

Chapels, pillar-type crosses and roofed pillar-type crosses were built on the same occasion and with the same aims as simple crosses. They usually contained figurines of saints. Chapels were built on stone by the wayside or close to farmsteads. In their form they reminded of miniature churches, church lanterns, sometimes even grain barns. In Suvalkija little chapels used to be attached to wayside trees. Pillar-type crosses are small chapels raised on a tall pole. Roofed pillar-type crosses have a roof over the statuettes placed at the top of a tall pole. There are one-tier and two-tier pillar-type crosses. When there are four statuettes, each is placed at a window on all the tour sides of the chapel. In Zemaitija one-tier pillar-type crosses are more frequent while the Aukstaitians prefer two-tier pillar-type crosses. Some scholars maintain that their sources are to be sought in the artistic world outlook and be- lief of the pre-Christian period.

Chapels, crosses, pillar-type crosses and roofed pillar-type crosses are adorned with Christian and pre-Christian symbols, Christian symbols include the Crucified, statuettes of saints, God's eye, an angel with a trumpet, a chalice; the ancient symbols include the sun, moon, grass-snakes, etc., which are to be found on archeological finds and objects of art remote from religion.

Very often folk artists used the form of a cross to express their artistic visions. They grouped ornamentation around the crossbar in such a way that the cross looked more like a huge stylized sun with a crucifix in the center. The ornamentation was usually determined by the artists individuality and local traditions. Aukstaitian and Dzukian crosses were more heavily ornamented than in the other ethnic regions. In Dzukija even the implements of Christ's torture used to serve as elements of ornamentation.

Beside the motifs of lilies and chamomiles, folk masters used triangles, circles, squares and half-moons to adorn their crosses. Open work elements of ornamentation were usually attached around the crossbar and under the roof.

When after the Second World War the communist authorities prohibited the erection of crosses and pillar-type crosses, these traditions of folk art were discontinued. In 1972 the old folk masters began to cultivate this branch of folk art in a new way and created a group memorial to the victims of the village of Ablinga, Zemaitija, who were shot or burnt alive on the second day of the war by the German soldiers. But a considerable number of details in this memorial were created not so much an the basis of the ancient art heritage as on the traditions of professional art. The pillar-type crosses erected along the Varena - Druskininkai highway in 1975 in honour of the great Lithuanian artist and composer Mikalojus Ciurlionis, were executed in, a more consistent traditional manner. In 1988 in the Salcininkeliai group the ancient sculptural and architectural forms were used to convey the mood and images of anti-war folk songs, The surviving traditions of folk architecture and sculpture helped to restore traditional pillar-type crosses, for in the second half of 1988 came the unexpected revival of crosses and pillar-type crosses in Lithuania. New crosses were erected to the victims of post-war resistance and deportees. They were erected at the railway stations from which trains with deportees used to leave for Siberia, at the places of former villages, and other places, It is to be regretted that sometimes haste makes the folk masters forget the traditions.

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Copyright , 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.