ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2015 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 61, No.1 - Spring  2015
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavièius

Book Review

Juozas Galkus. Lietuvos Vytis: The Vytis of Lithuania 
Vilnius: Vilnius Academy of Arts Press, 2009. ISBN 978-9955-854-44-9

Published to commemorate the millennium of Lithuania’s oldest known reference, as Litua, in the Saxonicae Annales Quedlinburgenses in 1009, this handsome volume documents the visual history of the Vytis from the fourteenth century to the present. A brief but informative essay surveying Lithuania’s history introduces the visual feast which follows. And it is quite a banquet. Juozas Galkus selected some 550 images, arranging and presenting the superb full-color illustrations under six chronological rubrics: Lithuania of the Gediminids, The Commonwealth of Two Nations, Under Foreign Oppression, Twenty Years of Independence, The War and the Occupations, The Lithuania of Today. The bilingual texts in Lithuanian and English make this comprehensive visual tribute widely accessible. 

The iconic Vytis image rarely elicits a second glance when encountered on recent coinage, paper currency, postage stamps, beer mugs, coffee cups, T-shirts, and car stickers. Putting most such items aside, Juozas Galkus conveys us far away to centuries past and unfamiliar places, finding the Vytis in tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, old maps, chandeliers, baldachins, vault bosses, enamel plaques, fine book bindings, document seals, cannon barrel plates, gorgets, scepters, towels, hunting-knife sheaths, kettledrums, ceremonialsword hilts, silver goblets, engraved wineglasses, spoons, dinner plates, Meissen porcelain clocks, grenadier caps, and insignia of the Lithuanian units in Napoleon’s Grand Armée; also on plaques in churches and on building facades, sculpted tomb reliefs, and glazed stove-tiles; plus carved armorials distinguishing border posts, palace gates and portals, window frames, and ballroom entrances. 

The images came from public and private collections, archives, museums, buildings, and outdoor sites scattered eastwards from Paris to Lviv and Lutsk in the Ukraine, stretching southwards from Stockholm all the way to Rome. While the armorials of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth always paired the Eagle of Poland with Lithuania’s Vytis, it was also used singly, appearing alone in the coats-of-arms of royals, aristocrats, and high state officials. They commissioned fine articles of outstanding workmanship and beauty, emphasizing their status with an emblazoned Vytis. 

The volume abounds with spectacular illustrations and close-ups of the custom-made articles. Unfortunately, the descriptions invariably use “fragment” instead of “detail.” A decorated element on a gunstock thus becomes “a gun and a fragment of its butt.” Recall that a close view of Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile is called a “detail” of the famous painting, never a “fragment.” Other venial miscues include the Sforza serpent mistaken for a “grass snake.” The painted cylindrical glassware of Saxony should be termed Passglass, not simply “glass.” Saddlecloths and saddle pads are not “horsecloths.” A soldier of the 17th Lithuanian Uhlan regiment in Napoleon’s army wore a czapka, a cap, not a “hat.” The 1605 Stockholm Roll, not “Stockholm band,” stretches out 15 meters or so when fully opened; it is definitely not “15.5 centimeters long.” 

Several notable images of the Vytis outside the old borders of Lithuania, Poland, and Saxony somehow escaped inclusion. We would be derelict not to mention the 1935 Darius and Girenas Memorial in Chicago’s Marquette Park, the Lithuania Pavilion in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and a mosaic Vytis in Our Lady of Ðiluva Chapel in Washington, DC ’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A Vytis is also in the Vatican Museum’s Sala Sobieski in the cartouche above Jan Matejko’s huge 1883 painting Jan III Sobieski Sending Message of Victory to the Pope. The 1568 engraving of Matthias Zundt/Johann Adelhauser’s panoramic view of Grodno clearly shows a mounted knight bearing a Vytis flag. Finally, an incised Vytis helps identify King Sigismund I’s horizontal table-clock, dated 1525, now in London’s British Museum. 

Nonetheless, Lietuvos Vytis: The Vytis of Lithuania is a boon companion to the best Lithuanian history books and reference works. Illustrating smaller articles, sometimes quotidian, sometimes representing the state, it offers a compelling parallel narrative to the texts typically accompanied by portraits, battle scenes, and views of cities and ruined castles. Expanding and complementing such coverage, this fascinating volume evokes the times when the illustrated objects were created, cherished, and displayed. More cannot be asked of a history book. 

K. Paul Þygas