Today is the wonderfully named Lithuanian Restoration of Independence Day – I love the emphasis on how they were an independent nation before the USSR, thankyouverymuch. On March 11th, 1990, Lithuania became the first Baltic state to break away from the Soviet Union, so congrats to them on 30 years of reinstated independence, and let’s take a look at their arms!
Blazon: Gules a knight armed and armored mounted on a horse salient argent, caparisoned azure, ornamented gules; bearing a sword proper and a shield of the second, a cross patriarchal of the third
Supporters: On the dexter a griffin and on the sinister a unicorn argent, armed or, langued gules
The Lithuanian coat of arms (or the arms of the Lithuanian ruler) has remained pretty consistent since its first appearance in 1366, attributed to the Grand Duke Algirdas. It continued to appear on 14th-century coins and seals. The positioning of the knight and horse, and the overall tinctures were established by the beginning of the 15th century.
(The charge of the knight and horse has a specific name in Lithuanian – Vytis. There are, of course, numerous theories behind this – it could be derived from the verb “to chase,” from a Slavic title of “knight,” etc.)
The knight’s shield didn’t quite settle until the 16th century. It’s not entirely clear why the cross patriarchal was selected – it could be a reference to the Hungarian cross, or possibly to Ladislaus II Jogaila’s conversion to Catholicism. I find the former explanation more credible; the cross patriarchal tends to be associated with the Orthodox, not Catholic church.
Aside from some minor modifications in the depictions, the arms stuck around even after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1795. (Okay, technically the arms were abolished, but the arms they were awarded instead are basically the same except for the shield and the tincture of the horse’s trappings. Why fix what isn’t broken?) Unsurprisingly, the Vytis became a symbol of national pride and, often, resistance to foreign rule. When Lithuania broke away from the Russian Empire in the late nineteen-teens, the arms became extremely popular, despite not having an official version. I’m not clear if the Republic of Lithuania ever established an official version, but the basics don’t ever seem to have been in question.
Unfortunately, in 1940 – say it with me – the USSR annexed Lithuania and replaced its national symbols with the bog-standard Soviet heraldry. Wheat, sun, hammer and sickle, five-pointed star, the works. Interestingly, as part of the slow liberal thaw in the late 80s, display of the previous national arms was re-legalized in 1988 – two years before the country broke with the Soviet Union. They didn’t waste any time readopting their beloved arms; the Vytis was returned to his place of honor on March 20th, 1990.