Vytis: From the Lithuanian Denar to the Euro

The exhibition “Vytis: From the Lithuanian Denar to the Euro” of the Money Museum of the Bank of Lithuania is like a historical journey of the Vytis from the first 14th c. Lithuanian coins, denars, to Lithuania’s current money, the euro. The exhibition is exposed in the Lithuania’s integral museum information system (LIMIS).

Virtual Exhibition: Vytis: From the Lithuanian Denar to the Euro

The coat of arms of the State of Lithuania, Vytis — an armoured knight on horseback with a sword and a shield on an arms shield — is among the oldest in Europe. It formed fully in the 15th c. The Vytis already for six hundred years has been the connecting axis of Lithuanian money. The depiction of an armoured knight with a sword comes from the portrait seals of the rulers (dukes) and first depicted the rulers themselves, determined to defend the land that they ruled.

During the period of the rule of Grand Duke Vytautas (1392–1430), the knight became the coat of arms of the GDL. At that time it was not yet called vytis. The Lithuanian term “vytis” was first used in our language later — in the mid-19th c. by Simonas Daukantas, as a synonym for expressing an ancient warrior, a knight. Vytis, as the name for the coat of arms, was already used in 1884 by Mikalojus Akelaitis. Today the word vytis is often used for both the coat of arms of the State of Lithuania, Vytis (the knight on horseback in an arms shield) and the separate figure from the state’s coat of arms — the knight (vytis); they are incorrectly associated with each other and are not differentiated.

The earliest Lithuanian coins issued in the GDL, which were called denars, first came to feature the knight on horseback at the end of the 14th c. On some coins the knight is depicted as riding to the left, in others — to the right; in some he holds a spear while others show a sword; the horse can either be standing in place or galloping. During the reign of Grand Duke Alexander Jagiellon of Lithuania (1492–1506), the Mint of Vilnius began to mint denar and half-groat coins with a much more artistic knight, incorporated into a circle; the small details of the horse and knight, already depicted with armour, and of the clothing are visible. The knight is pointing to the left (heraldically — to the right) and is depicted as galloping; the horse’s tail is raised, but the knight does not yet have on his shoulder a shield with a double cross. It only appeared in 1535, when the minting of groats started.

Until the Union of Lublin (1569), the knight on the Lithuanian coins varied greatly, his clothing details, helmets, shields, horse were depicted sometimes with the tail raised and sometimes lowered. The knight was depicted both separately and together with the Columns of the Gediminas Family on separate shields, as well as with the Polish Eagle, but on different sides of the coin. In 1547 the coat of arms of the GDL was used for the first time on a coin (the knight, placed on an arms shield), with the ducal hat above it. Until then, the knight had been represented separately, only as the figure of the coat of arms.

On 16 February 1918, the Act of Independence of Lithuania was declared. The coat of arms of the Republic of Lithuania once again had the symbol of statehood — the historical knight of the GDL (vytis). With the start of the issuance of Lithuanian money, the key historical symbols of the state were already depicted on them. On 2 October 1922, the first provisional Lithuanian litas and centas banknotes appeared in circulation, printed in Berlin and dated 10 September 1922. They were produced using the drawings and ornaments available at the printing house, adding Lithuanian text and the knight on the reverse. The higher-quality permanent banknotes, dated 16 November 1922, were created to the graphic designs of the artist Adomas Varnas and printed in Prague.

In the Republic of Lithuania in 1918–1940, in all issues of coins it was popular to use the depiction of the armoured knight with a sword and a shield as was created by the artist Juozas Zikaras. It had a fresh start on 11 March 1990, in the coat of arms of the restored Republic of Lithuania and was used in the first litas and centas coins, and banknotes of modern time, and is well-known because of the horse’s lowered tail. On 4 September 1991, the Supreme Council of Lithuania approved the second version of the coat of arms, created by the artist Arvydas Každailis and approved by the Heraldry Commission of Lithuania. This version depicts the horse with its tail raised. A. Každailis also offered a new image of the figure of the coat of arms, specifically adapted to coins, which was first minted in 1997 at the Lithuanian Mint on the circulation 10, 20, 50 cent coins and in 1998 on the 1, 2 and 5 litas coins of a new sample. Their plaster models were created by the artist Antanas Žukauskas. When the higher denomination coins of the previous issue were withdrawn from circulation, the former image of the knight remained on the 1, 2 and 5 cent coins of the 1991 issue, which were used up until the adoption of the euro.

The Bank of Lithuania has issued over 100 different collector and circulation collector coins. In these coins, the artists offered versions of the knight that were more varied and stylistically closer to the period or theme of the coins issued. Both sides of the coins became integral.

The tradition of depicting Lithuania’s coat of arms on money has continued into the present day. When the euro was adopted on 1 January 2015, the national side of the Lithuanian euro coins features the Knight figure (vytis) of the coat of arms of the State of Lithuania. Its plastic models were created by the artist A. Žukauskas.

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