Remembering the litas. 100, 200, and 500 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 recall 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 design of the 100, 200, and 500 litas banknotes.

In 1993, 10, 20, 50 and 100 litas banknotes appeared in circulation (later smaller denominations were issued — 1, 2, and 5 litas banknotes). Over the years and the establishment of the nation’s own money, with the economic situation improving, it became necessary to have higher denominations of banknotes. Their compositional scheme was intended to extend the series of large denominations. In 1997, 200 litas appeared in circulation, and in 2000 — 500 litas banknotes. So today we'll talk about the big denominations. 

100 litas banknote

The 100 litas banknote was created by the artist Rytis Valantinas. The obverse immortalises Simonas Daukantas. 

Daukantas is the author of the first Lithuanian history in Lithuanian. His books “Darbai senųjų lietuvių ir žemaičių,” “Lietuvos istorija,” “Būdas senųjų lietuvių, kalnėnų ir žemaičių,” describe Lithuania up to the Union of Lublin, its nature, customs, and political order, and puts Lithuania’s political independence as the most important condition of the nation’s existence. S. Daukantas’ books had a significant impact on the Lithuanian national movement of the 19th century.

The motif for the reverse was also unquestionable — the historian studied at Vilnius University, and in his works Vilnius, as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, receives a lot of attention. 

After familiarising himself with S. Daukantas’ iconography, R. Valantinas immediately chose the portrait by the artist Jonas Zenkevičius. This portrait, painted in person while the historian was still alive, is very popular. Others were created later by various artists and usually based on the aforementioned portrait. According to the banknote composition scheme, the portrait was placed on the right edge and the historian was turned slightly to the right, thus turning away from all the most important components of the banknote. According to the composition canons, it was wrong, and the portrait had to be redrawn. But they were in a hurry and didn’t have the time to do it. This was done later in the preparation of the next draft. The artist also showed exceptional attention to the state coat of arms which was not usually enlarged in the composition of money — here it was a bright accent in the very centre of the banknote.

When Valantinas created the project, the Vytis standard had not yet been approved and the Vytis created by Juozas Zikaras decorated Lithuanian coins during the interwar period. So, we can see his drawing of the sculptural relief in this banknote. We also see it in other issues of the 100, 200 and 500 litas banknotes — although the current coat of arms of the state was already confirmed, the Vytis created by J. Zikaras was still drawn. True, in the coins it was horizontal, and the author turned it obliquely upwards on the banknote, probably in order to make it more dynamic. And another detail, obviously borrowed from pre-war Lithuanian money, was an oval field for the watermark.

The reverse was dominated by the architectural ensemble of Vilnius University with the prominent but, unfortunately, barely visible towers and façade of St. John’s Church in the composition. The ensemble, which formed from buildings of various architectural styles for centuries, was very well-suited for a banknote drawing. Unfortunately, the result was not entirely successful — the characteristic features of the buildings, the details, were not highlighted, the buildings were not separated from each other, not to mention the work of engravers who did not know Vilnius. The same thing happened as with the buildings of the Old Town in the background of the cathedral in the first edition of the 50 litas banknote. 

In 1991, the 100 litas banknote was printed at the United States Banknote Corporation printing house.
In 1994, 100 litas banknotes of the same design were printed in the same printing house. Due to a lack of protection, these banknotes were not put into circulation.

In the 2000-issue 100 litas banknote printed at Orell Füssli Security Printing Ltd in Switzerland, R. Valantinas corrected a number of errors: he repainted the portrait of S. Daukantas, turned it to the left at the request of the specialists of the Bank of Lithuania, significantly narrowed the panorama on the reverse — limiteing himself to only the buildings of the central part, covering the more remote buildings in a green fog.
In 2007, the 100 litas banknotes were printed by the French company OBERTHUR Technologies Division Fiduciaire (former name at the time of printing “Francois — Charles Oberthur Fiduciaire”). These banknotes featured additional modern security features. 
200 litas banknote

Vydūnas, a public figure of Lithuania Minor, was chosen for the design of the 200 litas banknote in 1997. The author of the banknote was Rytis Valantinas.

Vydūnas (real surname Vilhelmas Storosta) was a famous interwar Lithuanian writer and philosopher, a tireless fighter for Lithuanian rights and language in Lithuania Minor. During the years of the Russian occupation, Vydūnas was ignored and less known to our people, but in restored Lithuania, his legacy again occupies its rightful place. The idea to commemorate this person on the 200 litas banknote was a certain form of debt repayment.

At the start of the designing of the banknote projects, the plan was for Vydūnas to be depicted on the 10 litas banknote, but it was decided to abandon the portrait of Vydūnas at that time.

When the Commission considered the iconography of Vydūnas’ portrait, the question arose as to which portrait of the writer to choose — a portrait of Vydūnas when he was still young, looking from the photo-chronicle pages of newspapers and magazines, a portrait which is still well remembered by intellectuals of the older generation, or a portrait of Vydūnas when he was old and grey, exhausted from the war and photographed in Germany a few years before his death. The view prevailed that Vydūnas should be depicted in the banknote as he was in the last years of his life. 

Valantinas initially thought of doing a composition on the banknote with images of Klaipėda. The artist remembers: “When studying Klaipėda, I did not find any features that stood out. The question arose — to depict the city in its fragmented heritage of German architecture or to delve into the port, industry? Vydūnas’ personality, how he held education in high regard, his worldview, pushed me towards a more philosophical outlook. I decided to choose the characteristic symbol of the port — a lighthouse, even though it was not very original. Archival postcards or photographs from newspapers and magazines about the Klaipėda lighthouse against the background of the sea were not enough for me. In terms of graphics, they were boring, sweet, and romantic. I wanted a more expressive drawing, a more dramatic plot, so I violated the encyclopaedic accuracy and created my own sea.”

As soon as the banknote appeared, the view of the reverse was critiqued — it was claimed that the waves were beating the pier from the wrong side, the lighthouse was not shining where it should. But for the artist, the overall logic of the composition of the banknote was much more important, and naturalness, encyclopaedic accuracy were the least important. Not everyone knows a landscape’s every detail, but everyone will hold money in their hands, so it is very important that the banknote is made professionally perfectly. In it, the sea and the lighthouse are symbols that express Lithuanian sentiments towards the sea, rather than a landscape, accurately painted from a certain point. 
The 200 litas banknote was printed by the German printing house Giesecke & Devrient GmbH. The artist went to the printing house with the prepared project and participated in the preparatory stage of production. 

The 200 litas banknote was the first Lithuanian banknote to use a metallised hologram strip, distinguishing this money from other banknotes with its multi-coloured shine. 

500 litas banknote

Already in 1990, it was planned to print 500 litas banknotes. They were composed by Raimondas Miknevičius, Head of the Money Design team. In 1990, the note was printed at the United States Banknote Corporation printing house in the United States, but there was no need for such a high denomination at the time. In 1991, the banknote did not have sufficient security features and was therefore not issued into circulation. In 2000, the design of the 200 litas banknote became an issue once more.

In 1991, the draft banknote was drafted in accordance with the established scheme of composition of the series of the large denominations: on the right of the obverse was the portrait, in the centre — the Vytis created by J. Zikaras, an elliptical shape for the watermark on the left, all the components connected by horizontal bands. On the reverse — a landscape with the Liberty Bell hanging in the clouds. In this banknote, it was decided to commemorate Vincas Kudirka — one of the most famous figures of the Lithuanian national revival, writer, public figure, editor and ideologist of Varpas, and author of the words and music of the national anthem “Tautinė giesmė.” 
Almost a decade after the bank decided to issue the 500 litas denomination banknote, the author of the 1991-issue banknote, R. Miknevičius, refused to continue his work and didn’t want to prepare the drawing for a new issue. This was proposed to Giedrius Jonaitis. He inherited the composition scheme and the theme of the planned issue, but he had to adapt the banknote to the increased security requirements and change its colour solution. All the Lithuanian small denomination banknotes didn’t have bright colours, but the 200 litas banknote was bright blue, and this banknote in the series of large denominations was supplemented by the red 500 litas banknote of the 2000 issue, printed at the Giesecke & Devrient GmbH Ltd. printing house in Germany.

Jonaitis changed the obverse of the project very little, adding only a vertical hologram tape. At the request of the specialists of the Bank of Lithuania, the painter abandoned the horizontal ornamental strips on both sides of the banknote, significantly reduced the size of the Vytis created by J. Zikaras and placed it in a horizontal ellipse. Around it he formed the centre composition. 

Kudirka’s portrait was etched professionally. The painter says that, knowing well the mastery of the engraver, he did not interfere too much in their work. As in the previous banknote, G. Jonaitis left the same landscape motif — the confluence of the Merkys and Nemunas rivers, he only changed the viewing point and modelled the Liberty Bell. R. Miknevičius paid more attention to the Nemunas in his project, he only marked the Merkys with a narrow glossy water strip, while G. Jonaitis chose the picturesque Merkys valley as the centre of his composition. The coincidence of the two artists’ tastes being similar was not surprising — it is one of the most impressive panoramas of Lithuanian nature. 

However, each of them treated the possibilities of adapting this landscape to the specifics of money in a completely different way. G. Jonaitis designed the banknote after having already understood the peculiarities of the composition of money, especially the security requirements of the banknote and the possibilities of printing technology. He looked at the landscape as a field where the banknote security complex would be installed. His approach to the location of the landscape in the composition of the banknote was expressed in his memory of working in the company: “When I created the banknote landscape, I sought to avoid naked naturalism, I tried to achieve certain conditionality. I did not want a solution like on our previous banknotes, where the landscape was like a perfect ‘picture’ — with clouds, plants, etc. I avoided a naturalistic image, thought purposefully about the prospects of its graphic realisation, modelled possible combinations of different printing techniques.”
For the first time in Lithuanian money, a protective strip was printed with colour-changing ink on the reverse. It was a Lithuanian banknote of the highest denomination, one that few people had seen or even held.