LITHUANIAN FOLK ART: ITS SOURCES AND CHIEF CHARACTERISTICS
An exhibition presented by the Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA Ethnic Art Galleries, November 21, 1966
Lithuanian folk art has developed against a background of traditional European culture. Some of the designs belong to a prehistoric vocabulary common to all European nations and to pre-Christian religious symbolism.
Lithuania is a land inhibited by agricultural peoples speaking a Baltic language of the Indo-European family. As a part of the central European climatic zone it consists of deciduous and coniferous forests and is covered by a network of glacial lakes and rivers. People living at the edges of large forests, far from the cities, where somewhat indifferent to new current of art styles, and technological innovations were not accessible to them. They lived in an unchanging world and continued to be absorbed by the rotation of the seasons, and their work at home and in the fields. Human life had no clear beginnings or endings, but revolved around the rites of passage, most important in the events of birth (or rebirth), initiation, weddings, and death (or transition), celebrated with ancient rites and accompanied by songs, elaborate costumes, symbols, and erection of Life- or Cosmogonical – Trees.
In a milieu of plentiful natural surroundings, the Lithuanians enriched their homesteads with an infinite variety of decorative domestic art. The forests encouraged the use of wood in the folk crafts. Generally, the ornamentation consists of geometric figures, zig-zags, triangles, wheels, segmented stars, suns and moons, combined with motifs from plant and animal life, blossoming flowers, rosettes, lilies, fir-trees, birds, rams, horses, and snakes.
Textiles, all prepared by women in the home, particularly linen and wool, are among the oldest and richest branches of Lithuanian folk art. These were represented in daily and ceremonial costumes, sheets, bedspreads, towels, and table cloths. The process began with flax plucking and drying, sheep shearing and spinning, and ended with weaving by hand loom during ling winter evenings. Threads were dyed with oak bark, birch leaves, moss, roots of various plants, and flower blossoms. Cotton was introduced into Lithuanian villages only in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since then, linen was frequently mixed with cotton, especially for towels and table-cloths, with designs in beige-on-beige. Most colorful, varied and rich in decoration were woven materials used for national costumes, particularly aprons and belts. Decorated Easter eggs of a prehistoric origin are still common in eastern Europe. They were prepared for spring festivals and were laid on graves as symbols of life power.
A religious syncretism is the chief cause of the general traits in Lithuanian folk art. The recurrent ancient beliefs in combination with its late acceptance of Christianity molded this persistent agriculture society and its forms of religious expression.
The Lithuanian landscape is unimaginable without its high, roofed wooden poles, and crosses radiating beams of sunlight between cross-arms. They are surmounted with ornaments in wrought iron which usually represented the signs of celestial bodies, the sun, the crescent moon, the celestial wheel, or stylized plant motifs. They were erected in cemeteries, at waysides, in courtyards, near sacred streams, on hills and in holy groves. Their origin may be sought in the widely diffused ancient Cosmological Tree, which safeguarded and perpetuated life powers, protected the human race, animals and vegetation against constantly threatening destruction, death and evil, and ensured well-being and happiness on earth. Before the World Wars there were perhaps nearly 50, 000 of these “artificial trees” in Lithuania. In Zemaitija, the western part of Lithuania near the Baltic Sea, according to popular saying you find one at every ten places. Their consecration was celebrated by ancient rites and feasts.
Until the fourteenth century A.D. the Lithuanians fully practiced their pagan cults. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they stubbornly clung to their creed as a national religion in their struggle against the Teutonic Order. At last the Lithuanians became converted to the tenets of the Western Church, nit through the efforts of the German Order, but because of their relationship with the Poles. Considered as pagan relics by the clergy, roofed poles and crosses had been ordered to destruction time and time again, but many managed to survive in a merger with Christian symbolism. The great sun-discs had a Christ, the Virgin Mary, or one of the Saints affixed to their centers. The roofed poles assumed the shape of small chapels placed on high poles housing one or a group of dievukai “little gods,” as the saints were called by the Lithuanian peasants. Chapels were also attached to oaks, lindens, birches, firs or pine trees, those which had been sacred to pagan beliefs. Other chapels were placed on stone piles or in high places, the former sites of ancient pagan shrines or altars.
Because of their nature as a perishable material, it is not known exactly when the first wooden carvings using Christian figures were made. Their appearance was connected with a deeper penetration of Christian faith into villages. Missionary work carried on by the Jesuits during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was decisive in strengthening the Catholic Church all over Lithuania. The great European currents entered; cathedrals and palaces were built, and the services of foreign masters, usually from Italy, were called upon. Art collections, Madonnas, Crucifixions, and certain miracle-performing Saints were brought for the newly built palaces and churches. There were strong influences radiating from the many Baroque churches in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, but villages in outlying districts do not show any Baroque influence until the eighteenth century. It can be surmised that Christs, Holly Virgins, and Saints, carved by village “god-makers,” emerged in the seventeenth century. In the mid-eighteenth they are mentioned in written documents.
As a reaction, a dual religion arose with transformations and the creation of a new mythology in the villages. The dievukai differed from the flamboyant High Baroque sculpture and from lifeless church versions made by provincial artists. The peasant sculptor drew from his own surroundings, his own roots, and remained true to himself. He carved the faces of his relatives or neighbors and dressed them in peasant costume.
The character of the early folk sculptures is illustrated by the publication of a decree in 1752 by Bishop A. Tiskevicius of Zemaitija, forbidding the villagers to carve dievukai for they were “ugly.” As Dr. Jurgis Baltrusaitis writing about Lithuanian folk art in 1948 noted, no doubt Bishop Tiskevicius invoked the same reasons as St. Bernhard in his fight against the monsters of the Romanesque churches, for their excessive freedom of expression and rudeness of features.
The village dievdirbis, the god-maker, did not follow the canon. The proportions were too short or too tall and bodies and faces were deformed. Heads were large, fixed on the trunk, with wide open or closed eyes. The crucified Christ’s hands and feet frequently were frightening large, with perforating enormous nails, and his forehead and cheeks were stained by gigantic drops of blood. A body of a dead Christ lying on the lap of his Mother was as small as a baby, sunken in an embrace by a timeless mother-earth. Because of a strong inherent architectonic sense, the legs, arms, or whole bodies stiffen into pillars. In this art we find traces if the great Western currents, but Lithuanian god-makers remaining faithful to their own history, and beliefs of the past ages are still alive in the statues.
The folk sculpture, dating from the nineteenth century, represented in this exhibit carries elements which belong to three different periods; the inherited pre-Christian, the superimposed Christian, and the calamitous nineteenth century, when Lithuania was occupied by the Tsarist Russia. The peasants were plagued by serfdom and poverty, preyed upon because of the nobility’s unrestricted rights, and severely persecuted by Russian Tsarist officials.
It was an age when a compassionate Savior and the Saints and their miraculous powers were needed. It is no wonder that the carvings portray suffering, sorrowful figures. In Christ’s tormented face of the Crucifixion, the god-maker reached a peak in expressionism. The Sopulingoji, the “Sorrowful Mother of God,” is an infinitely sad Lithuanian peasant mother with her enormous heart on her chest pierced with gigantic swords. A pensive Christ, Rupintojelis, “the Man of Sorrows,” his head bowed, needing the support of his hand, was to be found sitting alone under a roof attached to a tree, weeping over the misery of mankind. The symbolism of Rupintojelis entered Lithuanian poetry and persists as a symbol in our days.
The folk especially loved the saints whose functions were related to the pre-Christian gods. Saint George, the dragon-killer, can be linked with the ancient Indo-European warrior-god and a spring-god. As the protector of animals he became extremely popular in Lithuania. Portrayed riding on a steed as a young knight in full armor, a spear in his right hand, and a cloak flying in the wind, he is the figure closest to the image of a pagan Baltic god preserved in mythological songs. A knight on a white steed is an emblem of Lithuania, a country whose economy in past ages was predominantly pastoral and whose people were great horse lovers. The veneration of Mary is strongly connected with the ancient female goddess, Zemyna, who protected fields, plants, and homesteads. Saint Isidore, the sower and plower, dressed in farmer’s tunic, was the guardian of the fields. He performed some of the functions of the Baltic Dievas, an analogue of the Indic Mitra and the Germanic Tiu, the gods who stimulated the growth of the crops. The two oxen placed before Saint Isidore’s plough were led by an angel – a symbol which apparently goes back to the pre-Christian god’s sacred oxen, the Dievo jauciai. Those saints connected with holy waters, like Saint John Nepomuk or John the Baptist, and those who gave protection against destructive fires, like Saint Frorian, Saint Barbara, and Saint Agatha, or against epidemics and other misfortunes, like Saint Roch and Saint Anthony, and became very popular.
In contrast to the sorrowful figures of the Holy Family and Saints, stands the Devil – a naked, horned and winged creature, having a tail and claws of a beast, and a beard of a he-goat. He holds a fork and grimaces. Some of the Devils seem to have some directly from the hell of Middle Ages.
God-makers of Lithuania were the most creative souls in the villages. Many of them were also known as musicians, carpenters or craftsmen. Although untrained as professionals artists, they used their natural talents and followed their own intuitions. There was great demand for their simple and sincere sculptures. Some god-makers achieved fame over large areas. As is usual in art history, local schools were formed, each with their own stylistic traits. Most carvers are now unknown except for a few who were active in recent times.
At present, the museums in Lithuania have about 10, 000 dievukai among their holdings. As the unfortunate consequences of World War II military operations, many of the wooden carvings were lost or destroyed. Lootings by retreating German solders in 1944, and the burning of four museums in eastern Lithuania during the second Soviet occupation added to the destruction. Some of the sculptures were hidden for safekeeping but never survived, and others have rooted because of burial or cellar storage.
After a neglect of almost 25 years, two volumes published respectively in 1963 and 1965 in Vilnius as part of the Lietuviu Liaudies Menas (Lithuanian Folk Art) series, testifies to a renewal of interest in these folk sculptures. As objects linked to Lithuanian history and culture, dievukai are cherished, preserved and guarded, and their exodus to the West has been barred.
In the United States, the dievukai are almost unknown to the general public. The UCLA Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology now have a unique collection of nearly sixty pieces of Lithuanian folk sculpture. My mother, Dr. Veronika Alseikiene, now in Kaunas, Lithuania, managed to collect this representative group os an illustration of the “god-makers’ “ art in Lithuania. I especially want to thank Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, Chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles, whose interest and support made the acquisition of this collection possible.
A note on Amber
Necklaces of round beads have been worn by Lithuanian women since prehistoric times. They have appeared as grave finds dating from the first and second Millennia B.C. as well as in all later periods. Amber was always worn alone and never in a mixture with beads made of other materials such as glass, bronze, silver, or coral. Until fairly recent times, it was believed that amber had magical properties. In the Bronze and Iron Ages amber was considered to be a “substance of the sun.” At present in folk belief, it is still cherished as a shining, electric substance that is endowed with healing powers.
Amber is neither stone nor metal. Rather, it is the resin of pine trees which were formed some 50 to 60 million years ago on the south coast of Finland. The shores with “amber pine” forests sank beneath the sea, emerged, and then again became submerged during subsequent geological ages. The resin petrified in time and huge masses of it were washed up by the sea on what is now the southeastern shores of the Baltic and on the tip of Jutland in Denmark. The coasts of Lithuania and Latvia supply the greatest quantity of amber. Amber contains its history in petrified remnants of plants, seeds, flies, spiders, butterflies, ants and other insects who lived millions of years ago.
Generally, amber is yellow, but there is an infinite variety of shades from greens to ivory tones to dark reds and at times even blacks. Amber may also differ in degrees of transparency, the most precious types in this material being translucent amber in varied intensities of yellow.
Professor of European Archeology
Curator of Old World Archeology