BDAR

Vytis: from the Lithuanian denar to the euro

The Lithuanian Vytis, featuring an armour-clad knight on horseback with a sword and a shield, is one of the oldest coats of arms in Europe, as it was fully formed in the 15th century. For 600 years, Vytis has been the connecting link of all Lithuanian money. The image of an armoured knight holding a sword comes from portrait seals of rulers (dukes), which first of all depicted the rulers themselves, representing their determination to defend their land.

The knight became the coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the rule of Grand Duke Vytautas (1392–1430), although then it was not yet called Vytis. The Lithuanian term vytis was first mentioned only in the mid-19th century by Simonas Daukantas, as a synonym for an ancient warrior or a knight; as a name for the state’s coat of arms it was first used by Mikalojus Akelaitis in 1884. Today, the word Vytis is used for both the coat of arms of Lithuania and the depicted knight itself, thus they are often mistakenly confused.

The earliest Lithuanian coins issued in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – denars – first started featuring the knight on horseback in the late 14th century. On some coins, the knight was depicted as riding to the left, on others – headed to the right, on some – holding a lance, and a sword on others, while the horse was either standing still or galloping. During the reign of Grand Duke Alexander Jagiellon (1492–1506), the Mint of Vilnius started issuing denar and half-groat coins depicting the knight (incorporated into a circle) in a much more artistic and detailed way; he was also headed to the left (heraldically – to the right) on a galloping horse with its tail raised high. On these coins, the knight did not yet have a shield with a double cross on his shoulder, as it only appeared in 1535, when the minting of groats started.

Until the Union of Lublin (1569), the details of the knight featured on the Lithuanian coins, including his clothing, helmet, shield and horse, greatly varied. He used to be depicted either with or without the Columns of Gediminas on separate shields, as well as with the Polish Eagle, but on different sides of the coins. The coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania first emerged on Lithuanian coins in 1547 – it was a knight depicted on the arms shield, with the ducal hat above it. Until then, the knight used to be represented separately, only as a figure of the coat of arms.

On 16 February 1918, when the Act of Independence of Lithuania was declared, the country’s coat of arms featuring the symbol of statehood – the historical knight of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Vytis) – was restored. The new Lithuanian money bore the key historical symbols of the state. On 2 October 1922, the first provisional Lithuanian litas and centas banknotes, printed in Berlin and dated 10 September 1922, appeared in circulation. They were produced using the drawings and ornaments available at the printing house, by adding the Lithuanian text and the knight on the reverse. The higher-quality permanent banknotes, dated 16 November 1922, were created according to the graphic designs of the artist Adomas Varnas and printed in Prague.

In 1918–1940, all issues of coins of the Republic of Lithuania featured the armoured knight with a sword and a shield that was created by Juozas Zikaras. It was later recovered on 11 March 1990, when Lithuania restored its independence, and used in the litas and centas coins as well as banknotes (well-known because of the horse’s lowered tail). On 4 September 1991, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania approved the second version of the coat of arms created by Arvydas Každailis, which was confirmed by the Lithuanian Heraldry Commission. This version depicts the horse with its tail raised. Každailis also offered a new image of the figure of the coat of arms that was specifically adapted to coin mintage. It was first minted in 1997 at the Lithuanian Mint on the 10, 20 and 50 cent circulation coins as well as in 1998 on the 1, 2 and 5 litas coins of a new sample. Their plaster models were created by 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, where artists had the opportunity to offer various stylised versions of the knight.

The tradition of depicting Lithuania’s coat of arms on money has continued into the present day. With the adoption of the euro on 1 January 2015, the national side of the Lithuanian euro coins has been featuring the knight figure as well. Its plastic models were created by Antanas Žukauskas.

The entire exhibition is available in the Lithuanian Integral Museum Information System (LIMIS).