Let’s remember the litas. 1, 2, and 5 litas banknotes

This year marks thirty years since the litas began to circulate again in Lithuania after a more than 50-year break. This happened on 25 June 1993. We had the litas for a significant part of our history until the introduction of the euro in Lithuania in 2015. Even though it has been eight years already, we still remember what the litas looked like. But do we really remember? In this series of articles, we will remember what was depicted on the litas banknotes. What you forgot, what you might not have noticed, and what you didn't know. Today — about the 1, 2, and 5 litas banknotes. 

When creating money, the banknote design team provided for a banknote composition scheme. The right side of the obverse was dedicated to a portrait, a large denomination number, and to the left — a watermark. On the left of the reverse was a composition, a conceptually linked personality depicted on the obverse, and on the right edge of the composition — place for a watermark.

1 litas banknote

Initially, Raimondas Miknevičius, head of the group, started designing the 1 litas banknote. The obverse depicts a peasant with a straw hat playing a wooden pipe. The lower part of the banknote expressively intertwines hop leaves and cones, further emphasising the positive mood of the composition. The sunny yellow, warm green, and ochre-coloured banknote looked very cheerful. The reverse side was also well-composed, in its centre was a statue of St George carved by a folk craftsman. 

Later, R. Miknevičius said that when considering the possibility of issuing banknotes of the lowest denomination, a consultant from Australia, Kęstutis Jonas Lynikas,“was the first to notice that there was not a single woman among our cultural figures. What would feminists say?” Therefore, at the last moment, it was proposed to commemorate the famous writer and public figure Žemaitė (real name Julija Žymantienė). Her most significant short stories are “Marti,” “Petras Kurmelis,” “Topylis,” and others. 

When the coins with a low denomination were minted, there was no need to rush with the production of the banknotes of this denomination, so their design was postponed. Later this work was taken on by the artist Giedrius Jonaitis. 

G. Jonaitis painted a portrait of Žemaitė based on a well-known photograph from the beginning of the 20th century, highlighting the faded details and facial relief. This portrait is the most recognizable image of the writer, where she resembles a peasant woman wearing a white scarf. The engraver of the money printing house masterfully engraved the drawing, perfectly conveying the ornamented scarf, the nuances of her facial wrinkles. This is probably one of the most successful portraits on our banknotes. 

The motif for the reverse was dubious. The Palūšė church and bell tower on the eastern edge of Aukštaitija have nothing to do with the writer, her stories with their Samogitian flavour, in some of which there are even atheistic features. As the surviving sketches show, at first the reverse was supposed to be decorated with a sculpture of St George. The motif, probably inherited from the composition of R. Miknevičius, would have been better suited to Žemaitė, who fought against the darkness and evil of the rural life. In addition, sculptures of St George were favoured in Samogitia and often decorated crossroads or gardens. 

The wooden Palūšė church and bell tower, an example of folk architecture of the mid-18th century, covered almost half of the banknote; its contrastingly illuminated, rhythm of dark and light spots of the walls is disturbed only by the gates leading to the churchyard in the foreground. The author says he tried to photograph and paint the ensemble in person, but finally chose a photograph taken by Mečislovas Sakalauskas, a famous architectural heritage photographer. 

The colour gamut of the banknote is a pleasant combination of warm brown colours.

This banknote came into circulation in 1994 and circulated until 2007, when the small denomination litas banknotes were finally replaced by coins. 

2 litas banknote

The design of the 2 litas banknote was originally entrusted to Ludvikas Pocius. The style of his sketches was very close to the style of Lithuanian banknotes during the interwar period —multifaceted, complex, with a Gothic ornament structure, elaborate, stylised numbers, and coats of arms. This is especially evident on the 2 litas banknote with Vytautas the Great and Trakai Castle. Of course, such stylistics were not suitable for modern money, and the author had to create the banknotes according to the designed scheme. Later sketches prepared by him (a maiden with national clothes depicted on the obverse and Trakai castle on the reverse) already clearly exhibit the same attitudes as in the small denomination banknotes created by other authors. After some time, G. Jonaitis once again decided to issue small denominations into circulation.

It was decided to portray the bishop Motiejus Valančius — a famous Lithuanian writer, who was passionate about education, established parish schools, demanded that classes be taught in Lithuanian, and fought against alcohol consumption — on the 2 litas banknote. In his books, dedicated to the humble village folk, the Bishop condemned alcohol drinking, darkness of mind, encouraged people to enlighten themselves, and strengthen Catholicism.

The structure of the obverse of this banknote is the same as that of the 1 litas. The bishop’s penetrating gaze, a perfectly modelled face, are the merit of G. Jonaitis.

The decision to depict Trakai Castle on the reverse was probably automatically taken from the 2 litas banknote previously composed by L. Pocius. G. Jonaitis, on the reverse of one of the first sketches of the banknote, depicted a Samogitian chapel. The complex architecture, consisting of four parts is a village sculptor’s work, is not only an idea more closely related to the themes of the church, but would also be a means of popularising folk art. Another suggestion of the author was to include on the reverse a relief of the famous cross-maker Vincas Svirskis, “Šv. Izidorius — artojas.” 

However, the main component of the reverse was Trakai Castle, a meaningful architectural monument suitable for a banknote. The castle is a popular tourist destination, visited not only by Lithuanians, but also by foreigners, and many photographs of the ensemble are included in albums about Lithuania. G. Jonaitis chose an interesting point of view, allowing to show the complex plan of the ensemble, its tower, and the arrangement of defensive walls. 

The colour gamut of the banknote is a cold green, slightly enlivened by dark green tones on the reverse.

The banknote came into circulation in 1993 and circulated until 2007. 

5 litas banknote

As the sketches show, the theme of the 5 litas note was originally the feat of Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas. Later it was decided to portray the pilots on the 10 litas banknote, and on the 5 litas banknote — Jonas Jablonskis.

J. Jablonskis is famed for his work in standardizing the Lithuanian language. He had a good knowledge of the Suvalkian dialect, on the basis of which the common Lithuanian language was formed at the end of the 19th century. In order to improve and adapt it to the needs of modern society, he wrote articles on issues of language culture, produced and published a number of textbooks, corrected the language of various newspapers and publications, took care of terminology, cleaned it up from centuries-old barbarisms. 

Following the Commission’s recommendation to commemorate J. Jablonskis on this banknote, the painter G. Jonaitis independently searched for material. He appealed to a well-known linguist, the author of the monograph about J. Jablonskis, Arnoldas Piročkinas. With his help, Jonaitis selected from the rather abundant iconographic material a portrait that shows the scientist's character and activities, and at the same time is well-recognizable to people from all walks of life. In the portrait chosen by the artist, Jablonskis is already old, dressed in a house jacket, on his head — a round cap favoured by scientists of the 19th century. The artist handed this expressive photograph to the engraver. The engraving lines of J. Jablonskis’ portrait are solid and monotonous, very different from the portraits of Žemaitė and M. Valančius.

The dominant feature of the reverse composition is the sculpture “Lithuanian School 1864-1904” by the painter Petras Rimša (often referred to as “Vargo mokykla”). Rimša wrote that he wanted to “express his gratitude to his mother, who taught all her children to read Lithuanian while sitting at the spinning wheel, and to all women who had the will and energy to fight the tsarist restrictions in any way they could.” Thus, this sculpture is a monument to all those who, during the Tsar’s oppression, did not fear impending exile, protected and nurtured the Lithuanian language, Lithuanian identity. The sculpture extends the theme of J. Jablonskis as a scientist, who during the same period fought for the rebirth of the Lithuanian language and tirelessly improved it. Rimša created several variants of the sculpture, quite distinct from each other. Jonaitis chose one of the later ones. The bronze casting is located at the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas. The banknote’s artist drew and photographed the sculpture under various lighting conditions and from various points. For a person who does not know the history of the sculpture, it is difficult to understand, so it was not very suitable for a daily use object — a banknote. G. Jonaitis had a difficult task — to bring this complex genre work as close as possible to the symbol’s expression.

The colour pattern of the banknotes was blueish purple. 

The banknote came into circulation in 1993 and was in force until 2007.