Columns of the Gediminids
“The Columns of the Gediminids are featured in yellow (gold) on a red shield or without it.” From the Law on the National Coat of Arms, Emblems, and Other Insignias of the Republic of Lithuania.
Since 1397, the Columns of the Gediminids were undoubtedly used on the coat of arms of Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania. It is believed that a similar symbol may have been used by his father, Duke Kęstutis of Trakai. After Vytautas’ death, the symbol was taken over by his brother Sigismund Kęstutaitis (house of Kęstutis). At first, the Columns used to represent the family of Kęstutis, and since the 16th century, when the successors of King Jogaila (Pol. Jagiello) of Poland started using them in Lithuania as well, the Columns became the symbol of the whole dynasty of Grand Duke Gediminas (the Gediminids). In heraldry, the Columns of the Gediminids were usually pictured in gold or in yellow on a red field, while they were occasionally portrayed in silver or in white since the second half of the 16th century.
It is by far the most mysterious of the symbols, surrounded by legends. In the early 16th century, Lithuanian chroniclers identified the shape of the symbol as columns and attributed them to Palemonas, the legendary progenitor of the dynasty of the Gediminids, who came to Lithuania from Italy. In the first half of the 19th century, Teodor Narbutt named the sign the Columns of Gediminas, because he believed that the first to start using them was Grand Duke Gediminas. In the first half of the 20th century, the Columns were referred to as the gates of poles or otherwise. For the time being, the more neutral name of the Columns of the Gediminids has steadily been used.
There is no doubt that the Columns of the Gediminids are of local origin. Similar symbols can be found on the insignias of the nobility. It is believed that the Columns of the Gediminids were derived from the signs that had been used to mark property. Compared to the Double Cross, the Columns of the Gediminids had been used more predominantly in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The Columns of the Gediminids featured on the Lithuanian coins of the 14th and subsequent centuries; the banners of the regiments who were led by Grand Duke Vytautas and who fought in the Battle of Grunwald; the 15th and 16th century church paraphernalia given to Vilnius Cathedral; the 15th century seals of the Lithuanian Franciscans and major state seals in 1581–1795; book graphics; and the pieces of work by Vilnius’ goldsmiths. Combined together with Vytis, the Columns of the Gediminids were also embedded on the Lithuanian cannon barrels in the 16th and 17th centuries. The symbol was also used to decorate horse bridles and landmarks of the dominions of the Lithuanian grand dukes.
The Columns of the Gediminids were particularly widely used in the first half of the 20th century following the restoration of the independent state of Lithuania. The symbol, as a distinctive sign, was adopted by the Lithuanian army, aviation and other public authorities. It was used to decorate Lithuanian orders, medals, and insignias and became an attribute of numerous public societies and organisations.
All symbols of statehood were banned when the Republic of Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union on 15 June 1940. Severe punishments were imposed for their usage up until the national reform movement. However, these symbols were not abandoned in public life and were further used in the underground. For instance, Lithuanian partisans used the symbol of the Columns of the Gediminids to mark their uniforms and decorate their weapons in 1944–1953. The Columns of the Gediminids were reborn with the national reform movement. In 1988, the Columns of the Gediminids became an integral part of the emblem of the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sąjūdis, which led the country towards restoration of Lithuania’s independence. The Columns were incorporated into the emblem of the Sąjūdis by painter Giedrius Reimeris. Later on, various state institutions and social organisations started using the Columns of the Gediminids as a symbol of the state.
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The usage of the historical Lithuanian national symbol of the Columns of the Gediminids is regulated by the Law on the National Coat of Arms, Emblems, and Other Insignias of the Republic of Lithuania. The standard of the symbol is approved by the President of the Republic of Lithuania on the recommendation of the Lithuanian Heraldry Commission.
Lietuvos heraldika, t. 1, sudarė Edmundas Rimša, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998.
Lietuvos heraldika, sudarė Edmundas Rimša, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 2008.
Rimša, Edmundas. Heraldika. Iš praeities į dabartį, Vilnius: Versus aureus, 2004.
Lietuvos Respublikos valstybės herbo, kitų herbų ir herbinių ženklų įstatymas, Vilnius, 1990 m. balandžio 10 d., I-130, (galiojanti suvestinė redakcija nuo 2020-07-01), Teisės aktų registras, https://www.e-tar.lt/portal/lt/legalAct/TAR.55B9E4E382B3/asr
Prepared by Vilma Akmenytė-Ruzgienė,
Office of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, Unit for Historical Memory of Parliamentarianism