History of the national coat of arms
In accordance with the Law on the National Coat of Arms, Emblems, and Other Insignias of the Republic of Lithuania, the national coat of arms of Lithuania is Vytis. The heraldic shield features the field Gules (red) with an armoured knight on a horse salient Argent (white). The knight is holding in his dexter hand a sword Argent above his head. A shield Azure hangs on the sinister shoulder of the knight with a double cross Or (yellow) on it. The horse saddle, horsecloth, straps, and belts are Azure. The hilt of the sword and the fastening of the sheath, the stirrups, the curb bits of the bridle, the horseshoes, as well as the decoration of the harness, are Or (gold).
The coat of arms is a distinguishing sign and a symbol of a state, town, family, social class or other community. Coats of arms originated in the early Middle Ages as distinguishing marks used in the battlefield. They became widely known in knights’ tournaments.
In Lithuania, the first coats of arms pertaining to lands and nobility appeared at the end of the 14th century. The national coat of arms of Lithuania, Vytis, is one of the few coats of arms that originate from seals portraying images of dukes. Grand Duke Algirdas of Lithuania may have been the first duke to have used a seal with an image of himself on horseback. However, his seal, attached to the Treaty with Poland of 1366, has not been preserved. Jogaila’s (Jagiełło’s) brother Vygantas, Duke of Kernavė, was the first one in Lithuania to have used a shield painted with a riding knight in 1388. He thus gave the knight image a status of a coat of arms. Jogaila, who became the Grand Duke following the death of Grand Duke Algirdas, and Jogaila’s brothers each had several seals with rider-type images. For some time, there was certain variation in the depiction of the riding direction, the motion of the knight, and the weapon in the hand of the knight. In 1386, after Jogaila acceded the Polish throne, a new heraldic seal was made for him, with quarterly first eagle, representing Poland, and quarterly second knight on a horse, with lance in hand and a double cross on his shield, representing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The late 14th century marks the beginning of the history of Vytis as the coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Under the rule of Grand Duke Vytautas (1392–1430), the riding knight became the coat of arms of the vast country Vytautas ruled: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Originating in the beginning of the 15th century, the majestic seal of Grand Duke Vytautas portrays a ruler surrounded by coat of arms of the lands under his rule. He holds a sword, representing the sovereign power, in one hand, and holds a shield painted with a riding knight, representing the Lithuanian state under his rule, in the other hand, which is lifted. The colours and design of the coat of arms established themselves at the beginning of the 15th century. Two kinds of metal (gold and silver) and two of the most important medieval colours used in coats of arms, Gul (red) and Azure (blue), were used for the coat of arms. The colour Gul (red) stood for material or earthly values, including human life, courage and readiness to shed blood; Azure (blue) symbolised spiritual values of heaven, the godly wisdom and common sense.
The Union of Lublin and the establishment of the Polish–Lithuanian state in 1569, also referred to as the Commonwealth of the Two Nations, led to the adoption of a joint coat of arms of the new country. Its four quarterly fields portrayed, in diagonal, the eagle and the riding knight as the symbols of the two constituent states. In the middle of the 16th century, the Polish heraldry devised a Polish name for the Lithuanian coat of arms, calling it “pogoń, pogonia, pogończyk.” In the 17th century, while looking for a Lithuanian counterpart to the word, Konstantinas Sirvydas identified two meanings of the concept as “waykitoias” (pursuer) in the case of a person and “waykimas” (pursuing) in the case of action. In the 19th century, the coat of arms of Lithuania was called Vytis. The word is considered to have been coined in the middle of the 19th century by Simonas Daukantas. However, instead of referring to the coat of arms itself, Daukantas rather referred to the knight represented therein. Mikalojus Akelaitis was probably the first person to have referred to the Lithuanian coat of arms per se as “Vytis” in the Aušra newspaper in 1884. Originally called “Vytimi” in 1st person Sg. Dat., by the 1930s Vytis came to be called “Vyčiu” in 1st person Sg. Dat.
Having represented the state for over four centuries, the Lithuanian coat of arms was abolished in 1795 when Lithuania became a part of the Russian Empire for a period exceeding a century. However, the historical image of the knight on horseback did not disappear altogether. In 1845, the Russian emperor Nicolas I approved the coat of arms as the coat of arms of Vilnius Governorate. However, the shield of the knight bore the image of the eight-pointed Orthodox cross instead of the original double cross. At the time of the First World War, following the collapse of the Russian Empire, Lithuania declared the Act of Reinstating Independence of Lithuania of 16 February 1918. The historical knight on horseback of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania became the coat of arms of the Republic of Lithuania. The first drafts of the coat of arms were designed by Tadas Daugirdas and Antanas Žmuidzinavičius. Also in use were the designs by Adomas Varnas, Adomas Galdikas, Juozas Zikaras and other artists. The romanticised version by Žmuidzinavičius was the most widespread one. The variety of standards of the coat of arms in use at the time meant that there was a need to search for a new standard version acceptable to all. The task to establish the standard national coat of arms was entrusted to the dedicated Commission that operated from 1929 to 1934. The draft of the new coat of arms was created by artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. However, even though his version was best historically justified, it was not officially adopted.
On 15 June 1940, further development of national heraldry was discontinued as a result of Lithuania’s occupation by the Soviet Union and all the symbols of statehood were banned. Their use was punishable by strict penalties up until the beginning of the National Revival. Nevertheless, the symbols of the independent Lithuanian state did not go away from public life. They were used for underground press by freedom fighters and also by separate individuals and members of anti-Soviet organisations as a way to demonstrate resistance.
On 11 March 1990, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania – the Reconstituent Seimas declared the Act of Restoration of the Independent State of Lithuania No I-12. On the same day, it passed the Law on the Coat of Arms and the Name of the State (No I-11) whereby it adopted Vytis as the historical Lithuanian coat of arms. Interestingly, the coat of arms was confirmed before the declaration of the restoration of Lithuania’s independence. On 20 March 1990, the design of the coat of arms of Lithuania, the first coat of arms of independent Lithuania since the Second World War, was confirmed. The design originated in the image of Vytis created for Lithuanian coins by sculptor Juozas Zikaras back in 1925. The day of 9 April 1990 marked the establishment of the colours of the coat of arms, taken from the coat of arms created back in 1934. The coloured standard coat of arms, adopted by the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania on 17 May 1990, had a Purpure (purple) background and a purple shield of the knight. This coat of arms became a symbol of the transitional period and highlighted Lithuania’s continuation of the pre-war traditions. At the same time, the Lithuanian Heraldry Commission was tasked to draw up a revised version of the coat of arms based on historical and iconographic sources. On 4 September 1991, the Supreme Council– the Reconstituent Seimas adopted the second version of the coat of arms created by artist Arvydas Každailis and approved by the Lithuanian Heraldry Commission. It is used to date.
Legislation governing the Lithuanian coat of arms
The national coat of arms of the Republic of Lithuania was enshrined in the Constitution (“The coat of arms of the State shall be a white Vytis on a red field”) and described in the Law on the National Coat of Arms, Coat of armss, and Other Insignias of the Republic of Lithuania. The legislation provides the description of the coat of arms and governs the procedures for the creation and official use of the coat of arms in the Republic of Lithuania. The Lithuanian Heraldry Commission is tasked to draw up and submit to the President of the Republic of Lithuania the standard coat of arms to be approved by the Seimas upon the instruction of the President of the Republic. The standard coat of arms of the Republic of Lithuania is protected by the procedure laid down by law.
Uses of the national coat of arms of Lithuania
The Lithuanian national coat of arms is used on documents, heraldic seals, title pages, publications and nameplates by institutions and bodies including:
1) the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, state institutions accountable to the Seimas, Office of the Seimas;
2) the President of the Republic and the Office of the President;
3) the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, the Office of the Government, ministries, government agencies, agencies coming under ministries, and government representatives;
4) the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania;
5) courts of the Republic of Lithuania, the National Courts Administration;
6) the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Lithuania; regional public prosecutor’s offices; the State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania, its territorial bodies and specialised agencies under the State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania; the Special Investigation Service of the Republic of Lithuania and its territorial units; the Police Department under the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Lithuania; territorial and specialised police bodies;
7) diplomatic missions and consular offices of the Republic of Lithuania; their departments and specialised missions abroad;
8) the Lithuanian Heraldry Commission;
9) public education, research and academic institutions and bodies;
10) institutions under municipalities with no coat of arms approved in accordance with the procedure; institutions and bodies subordinate to municipal institutions, departments of municipal administration, civil servants and staff;
11) administrative units of municipalities that have their own coat of arms adopted in accordance with the established procedure, administrative units implementing the state functions transferred to municipalities; heads of local administrations offering notarial services in accordance with legislation and evidencing wills bearing the same effect as official wills; heads of local administration in rural residential areas and towns in which there is no civil registry offices (excluding local administrations of municipal centres) for the registration of deaths;
12) notaries and bailiffs.
The Lithuanian national coat of arms is used:
1) on the flag of the President of the Republic;
2) on the flags and banners of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, its components and subordinate and other independent military units;
3) in heraldic signs of justices of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania and judges of other courts and the heraldic sign of the prosecutor;
4) on identity cards, in passports, on driving licences, civil servant’s certificates and other official certificates and documents;
5) in buildings which host voting for elections and referenda in accordance with the procedures established by the Central Electoral Commission of the Republic of Lithuania; on documents pertaining to elections and referenda approved by the Central Electoral Commission of the Republic of Lithuania;
6) on the state border signs.
The Lithuanian national coat of arms may be used:
1) on documents, the heraldic seal, nameplate, title pages and publications issued by the Bank of Lithuania,
2) on money;
3) on the distinctive insignia of uniforms of the military in the national defence system and statutory civil servants;
4) on postal stamps.
The national coat of arms is on permanent display in:
1) the Plenary Chamber of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania;
2) the meeting hall of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania;
3) the meeting room of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania;
4) the Senate Hall and other halls and meeting rooms of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Lithuania;
5) the meeting room of the Central Electoral Commission of the Republic of Lithuania;
6) the office of the Speaker of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania;
7) the office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania in the Presidential residence;
8) the office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Lithuania;
9) the office of the President of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania;
10) the offices of the presidents of the courts of the Republic of Lithuania;
11) the office of the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Lithuania;
12) the office of the Chairman of the Board of the Bank of Lithuania;
13) offices of the Chief of Defence, Chief of the Joint Staff, Chiefs of Staff of various types of armed forces and commanders of military units;
14) offices of heads of diplomatic missions and consular offices of the Republic of Lithuania and their departments and special missions abroad.
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Dobužinskis, Mstislavas. Vytis, Kaunas: Lietuvos istorijos draugija, 1933.
Galkus Juozas. Lietuvos Vytis, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2009.
Lietuvos heraldika, sudarė Rimša Edmundas, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 2008.
Lietuvos heraldika, t. 1, sudarė Rimša Edmundas, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998.
Rimša Edmundas. Heraldika. Iš praeities į dabartį, Vilnius: Versus aureus, 2004.
Vasys, Antanas. Herbas ir vėliava, Lietuvių enciklopedija, t. 15, Bostonas: Lietuvių enciklopedijos leidykla, p. 65–69.
Lietuvos Respublikos Aukščiausiosios Tarybos įstatymas Dėl valstybės pavadinimo ir herbo, Vilnius, 1990 m. kovo 11 d., Nr. I-11, Teisės aktų registras, https://www.e-tar.lt/portal/lt/legalAct/TAR.08CD4C01694F
Lietuvos Respublikos Aukščiausiosios Tarybos aktas Dėl Lietuvos Nepriklausomos valstybės atstatymo, Vilnius, 1990 m. kovo 11 d., Nr. I-12, Teisės aktų registras, https://www.e-tar.lt/portal/lt/legalAct/TAR.12C754906DE4
Lietuvos Respublikos Aukščiausiosios Tarybos nutarimas Dėl Lietuvos Respublikos valstybinio herbo, Vilnius, 1990 m. kovo 13 d. Nr. I-23, Teisės aktų registras, https://www.e-tar.lt/portal/lt/legalAct/TAR.65C81347CDA0
Lietuvos Respublikos Aukščiausiosios Tarybos nutarimas Dėl Lietuvos valstybės herbo etalono, Vilnius, 1990 m. kovo 20 d. Nr. I-47, Teisės aktų registras, https://www.e-tar.lt/portal/lt/legalAct/TAR.C2DBFA9B92C6
Lietuvos Respublikos valstybės herbo, kitų herbų ir herbinių ženklų įstatymas, Vilnius, 1990 m. balandžio 10 d., Nr. I-130, (galiojanti suvestinė redakcija nuo 2020-07-01), Teisės aktų registras, https://www.e-tar.lt/portal/lt/legalAct/TAR.55B9E4E382B3/asr
Lietuvos Respublikos Aukščiausiosios Tarybos nutarimas Dėl Lietuvos valstybės herbo etalono, Vilnius, 1991 m. rugsėjo 4 d. Nr. I-1752, Teisės aktų registras, https://www.e-tar.lt/portal/lt/legalAct/TAR.53837328E516
Prepared by Vilma Akmenytė-Ruzgienė,
Office of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, Unit for Historical Memory of Parliamentarianism