Vytis, the Sign of the Dynasty

Iconographic sources representing medieval Lithuania are scarce. Scientists know very little about the signs used by Lithuanian rulers and nobles in the 13th and 14th centuries. Even some of the seals discovered by historians that presumably belonged to the Lithuanian rulers, such as Mindaugas and Algirdas, have been downgraded in more recent studies to the category of fakes produced long after their death. Historical sources provide a few hints about the seal used by the Grand Duke Gediminas, but its image has not survived. The Gediminids, who ruled Lithuania from the early 14th century, were gradually composing the inheritable sign, or the coat of arms, of their extended family. There is no information that could enable us to date it to the times earlier than the second half of the 14th century. The chronology seems to be logical. It was at that time that Gediminas’ two sons, Algirdas and Kęstutis, finally turned the Gediminids into the all-powerful rulers of their country. Simultaneously, the dynasty faced a serious problem of solidarity. They had large families (Algirdas had twelve sons who entered adulthood, his brother Kęstutis had seven of them, while each son had his own sons) the members of which obviously needed certain unifying signs capable of strengthening their affinity.

The rider that united the Gediminids

The first names the dynasty used to name the future dukes points to the family’s attempts to strengthen inner ties and perhaps reflects personal relations, such as between godfathers and godsons, as well as the shaping of the family tradition. Here we speak of the Gediminids who were baptised and were given Christian names, because it has been impossible yet to discover any trace of inheritable tradition of first names among pagan representatives of the family. The first names of Mykolas, Simonas, Aleksandras, Jurgis and Teodoras are particularly widespread among the Gediminids. It is important to note that almost all dynastic lines (or branches) originating from the two sons of Gediminas feature the aforementioned names.

Changes in the ducal signs demonstrate the strive towards family unity in a yet more clear manner. The trend is obvious: the dukes representing different branches of the Gediminids started using the Rider as their common coat of arms in the late 14th century. (Vytis, from Polish pogonia, a chase, is a relatively late name of the horseback knight first mentioned in 1551 in the Chronicle by Marcin Bielski). It should be noted that a horseman features the sign of Narimunt Gleb, the son of Gediminas and the Duke of Polotsk, as early as around 1338. The emergence of the image, however, should be treated as a separate case related to the tradition of depicting Saint Gleb in the first place. Although none of the signs used by Algirdas have survived, it is very likely that he had a fresh view on the horseman as his symbol. After Algirdas’ death, his sons Jagiełło, Skirgaila, Lengvenis, Kaributas, Vygantas and Švitrigaila all used the same styled rider (Vytis) as their dynastic sign. It is correct to presume that the rider was initially the sign of Algirdas and his sons but was shortly adopted by representatives of other branches of the family. It took a while for Algirdas’ sons to adopt the single coat of arms. Lengvenis Simonas, for instance, used both Vytis and his own sign, the image of the so-called “Lithuanian shield” which can be seen in his seal that has been added to the 1385 Krėva Treaty.

The fact that the ruling dynasty chose a rider as their heraldic symbol can be explained by the influence of the European knighthood tradition. For the European knights, the rider with a sword and a shield was an old and venerable motive they had been used to for ages.

The story told in the language of heraldic symbols

The case of Karijotas, the Duke of Podolia, and his sons reveals that the adoption of the Vytis symbolised closer personal ties and allegiance to the ruling branch of Algirdas’ sons. The coins minted in Podolia and their earliest seal feature Saint George and, on the other hand, the wish to shape their own tradition of dynastic signs. Karijotas sons, however, began losing their independence, the trend reflected in the changes of their sign. It was around 1388 that Karijotas’ last descendants already used the seal featuring the Vytis of the Gediminids. The same is true speaking of Mykolas, the son of the deposed ruler Jaunutis, who swapped his lion-seal for the one featuring the Vytis. Vytautas, the grand duke of Lithuania and a cousin of Algirdas’ sons, started using the Vytis amid slightly different conditions. His father Kęstutis used the seal featuring an infantryman with a sword and a shield. During the years of his exile to the lands of the German Order, however, Vytautas swapped the infantryman for a rider, a more venerable symbol, in his seal apparently wishing to underline his bid to rule at least part of Lithuania.

Since that moment, every ruler of Lithuania and every member of the ruling family used the coat of arms with Vytis.

The ruling issued in 1442 by the King of Poland Wladyslaw III (later known as Wladyslaw of Varna), the eldest son of Jagiełło, illustrates that kind of thinking nicely. The king acknowledges the right to use the ducal seal featuring a knight with a sword and a shield for the three Czartoryski brothers. The document at the same time acknowledges the kinship between the Czartoryski family and the royal dynasty of the Jagiellonians.

The Vytis alone was not enough for the rulers, though. They expanded their system of signs in order to demonstrate the sovereign position of a king or a grand duke they had gained. In the coat of arms of Jogaila, the dynastic Vytis is supplemented by a double cross appearing in the same field with the rider. Vytautas’ coat of arms offers yet another novelty, the image of columns, later known as Columns of Gediminas or Gediminids. It was in the 15th century that the colour tradition of the Vytis coat of arms settled in with an Argent rider, raising a sword above his head, in Gules field.

Vytis remained the coat of arms of the state from the 15th century to the end of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 18th century. The first comprehensive history of Lithuania, the broad collection of Lithuanian chronicles (the so-called Bychowiec Chronicle compiled in the 1520s), presents the following legend about the emergence of the Vytis as the state emblem: “Narimantas, while taking the throne of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, conceded his Centaur coat of arms to his brothers and made an emblem for himself, the horseback rider with a sword. The coat of arms means the mature ruler able to defend his fatherland with the sword.”

Literature: E. Rimša, Heraldika. Iš praeities į dabartį, Vilnius, 2004.

Rimvydas Petrauskas