Remembering the litas. 20 and 50 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, 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 20 and 50 litas banknotes. 

The design of the two sides of the small denomination banknotes was the same, and the banknotes differed from each other only in portrait and colour. They were created by one author, while the 20 and 50 litas banknotes were designed by different authors. Although the aim was to not move away from the established stylistic unity, this provision was not fully achievable. 

Initially, the portraits were placed in the centre of the obverse, but Kęstutis Lynikas explained that banknotes are usually folded in half, and a portrait drawn in the centre will be constantly folded. Before the banknote is even worn down, the figure in the portrait will already be unrecognizable. In addition, it is awkward to fold money over a person’s face. Thus, it was decided to place the portraits on the right side of the banknote, leaving the left edge for the watermark. This composing scheme was followed by all banknote denominations.

20 litas banknote

In total, five 20 litas banknotes were issued. Their composition was created by the artist Justinas Tolvaišis. It was just a hand-drawn basis for the composition. The first two issues of this denomination (1991 and 1993) were printed at the United States Banknote Corporation. 
On the proposal of scientists, it was decided to commemorate the famous Lithuanian poet Jonas Mačiulis-Maironis on this banknote. This priest and professor of theology actively participated in the national movement, but he is most famous as a poet, known for his lyricism in glorifying heroic antiquity, calling the nation to fight against tsarism, proclaiming his love for Lithuania and its nature. The poems “Tarp skausmų į garbę,” “Jaunoji Lietuva,” and the collection of poems Pavasario balsai formed the worldview of many generations, awakening patriotic feelings during the difficult years of occupations.

On the reverse it was proposed to portray the ensemble of the Vytautas the Great War Museum in Kaunas. The poet never saw this building because it was built after his death. Although Maironis was born in Samogitia, he spent a large part of his life in Kaunas, and he also died there. He was buried near the museum, in the wall of the Cathedral. The other component of the reverse was also close to the poet who fostered Lithuania’s rebirth — namely Juozas Zikaras’ “Laisvė” sculpture, the image of a winged woman who has broken the bonds of oppression. 

The sculpture on the reverse, the tower of the Vytautas the Great War Museum, and the contrasting front facade of the museum take up half of the banknote, while the inexpressive side façade, lost in the shade, is on the other side. One of the largest elements of the reverse composition, the “Laisvė” sculpture, is too close to the edge of the banknote. Usually, the architect would concentrate all their ingenuity to make the front façade representing the building look interesting. The architect Vladimiras Dubeneckis succeeded, and the Vytautas the Great War Museum is one of the most impressive ensembles of Lithuanian architecture during the interwar period. However, the author devoted more of the area of the composition not to the representative façade, but to the shadowed side of the building. It is not important to accurately show the objects depicted on the banknote. It is more important that they are recognised by the general public. 
In 1997, a third issue of the banknote was printed at Thomas De La Rue in England. The main components were once again not much different from the previous but adapted to the new protection elements. 
Giedrius Jonaitis, our most experienced banknote designer, was invited to prepare the project for the new 2001 banknote issue, printed at Orell Füssli Security Printing Ltd. He corrected almost all the mistakes in the composition of the banknote. There are no major changes in the arrangement of components on the obverse, but they are presented better aesthetically. The artist essentially recomposed the reverse: he significantly increased the size of the ensemble of the Vytautas the Great War Museum, its illuminated main façade was turned to face the spectator, it became longer and the most important object grouping the entire composition. J. Zikaras’ “Laisvė”, taking up the entire height of the banknote, was moved to the right edge. In addition to improving the image of the banknote, its security features were also increased. The colour gamut of the banknote, especially the obverse, became quite beautiful. Thus, after long vicissitudes, the 20 litas banknote became a perfect example of money.
 In 2007, banknotes with additional security features were printed at the printing house of Giesecke & Devrient GmbH in Germany. 
50 litas banknote

Artist Rimvydas Bartkus created a 50 litas banknote, and Jonas Basanavičius was commemorated in it. The personality of J. Basanavičius, who is called the patriarch of the Lithuanian nation, was popular in interwar Lithuania, ignored during the occupation, and after the Rebirth he regained his place in the pantheon of the nation. Basanavičius promoted national self-awareness throughout his life, awakened patriotism, spread the Lithuanian language, and exalted Lithuania’s past. Lithuania’s independence was J. Basanavicius’ biggest dream and the result of all his life’s work. His merits to the nation, the noble way he carried himself, the fine silhouette of his expressive head, were well suited to a banknote of a high denomination. 

The motif of the Vilnius Cathedral with the image of the Old Town was not seriously questioned. J. Basanavičius lived in Vilnius for many years and died there. In the first sketches, R. Bartkus included on the left side of the reverse a heraldic figure of the coat of arms of Vilnius city — St. Christopher with a baby Christ on his shoulders, with Cathedral Square and the Old Town in the background. Such a composition may be more interesting, but it did not correspond to the pre-established scheme of composition, and the sculpture had to be abandoned. The approved composition of the reverse of the banknote was less rational because the artist did not delve into the variety of the architectural forms of the corner buildings of Pilies Street, he did not feel the rhythm of the roofs and towers of the Old Town. The composition did not have any of the spirit of Vilnius — in a boring semi-desert steppe there was only a faceless settlement with the Cathedral and bell tower in the foreground. 

The first two issues of this denomination were printed at the United States Banknote Corporation. In 1991, the banknotes remained in circulation for only a few months and were soon withdrawn from circulation. A 1993 issue with the same composition was issued. When Bartkus left Lithuania, Jonaitis was assigned to improve the banknote. He remembers: “I had no obligation to draw anything. Together with R. Miknevičius, we revised the examples several times, but talked only about colours, because there was no talk about graphic structures, their modification or improvement.” The banknote remained in circulation until 1998, when the third issue of this denomination was produced at the German printing house Giesecke & Devrient GmbH.  
During the preparation of the new edition, the Bank of Lithuania’s specialists proposed to recompile the banknote, which had been critiqued due to the proportions of the Cathedral, the faceless Old Town, and the primitive character of the technical drawing. The composition’s author wasn’t in Lithuania, so G. Jonaitis was invited to redesign the banknote. His main task was to repair the criticised reverse without fundamentally changing the obverse. After long searches, Jonaitis decided to change the point of viewing the cathedral. Without a doubt, the decision was the right one. Other objects of no less importance to the Lithuanian people — the tower of Gediminas Castle, the monument of the Three Crosses, and the newly built monument to Duke Gediminas — were also included in the field of vision. The hard lines of the buildings were softened by the greenery of the hills surrounding the valley of Šventaragis, the landscape became more ideologically spacious, and the viewing trail was one that was customary for people. When he was creating these banknotes, G. Jonaitis was already an experienced banknote designer, well acquainted with the technological subtleties of their production, he had visited a number of foreign banknote printing houses. He understood very well what it took for an artist’s drawing to become a banknote and paid a lot of attention to the structures of the guilloche.

The 2003 issue of banknotes with additional security features was printed at the German printing house Giesecke & Devrient GmbH.