Cross-making, a unique branch of Lithuanian folk art, was inscribed on the UNESCO Non-material and Verbal Heritage Masterpiece List in 2001.
Traditional Lithuanian crosses represent original structures that combine the elements of architecture, sculpture, blacksmith art, and sometimes even primitive painting. Vegetative ornaments, the motives of the sun or the bird – the tree of life – which extend to the archaic times and represent the approach of the sacral space, are often apparent on the crosses. To plead for grace or to express gratitude, the crosses are built as memorials to the dead or as the signs of spiritual protection at certain places.
Even when building crosses was prohibited or restricted by the occupants, the Russian Empire (the second half of the 20th century) and the Soviet Union (in the 1940s through 1990s), they were being tenaciously erected all over Lithuania. Due to that reason, as early as the end of the 19th century those monuments of various forms became one of the expression forms of the national identity and along with the religious and conventional implication they also gained the status of a national symbol.
Particularly many crosses could be found near the roads and homesteads of Žemaitija, Aukštaitija, and Dzūkija. Some of them were slim and slender with decorating carvings that seemed like wooden laces; others had a thick trunk with numerous entwined figures that looked rather like sculptures than crosses. Lithuania Minor or the settlements on the coast of the Lagoon feature different types of crosses. Specific old wooden crosses of the Curonians, the grave-boards, display vivid natural motives, such as birds and plants. The crosses at the Evangelic cemeteries of that period are rich in metal ornaments. The Museum of Blacksmith Art in Klaipeda houses magnificent examples representing traditional metal-work motives.
The most prominent artist of Lithuanian cross-making was Vincas Svirskis, who was carving crosses in the second half of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century. His crosses twined with multiple figures of saints closely resemble Lithuanian sculptural baroque compositions. Some of his crosses are particularly distinctive, as the figures twine around the trunk of the cross, mount up to the cross-member and the top rather than being placed on the façade only. This is an indisputable example of wooden architecture of the monumental sculptural plastic. Interestingly, Vincas Svirskis used to make his crosses from a solid tree chunk with the roots looking up. Lithuanian museums keep nearly 50 works of this talented cross-maker, including 14 pieces at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vilnius.
The Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai, a unique historic place in the world, where the crosses have been discontinuously put up to plead for grace or to express gratitude almost since the beginning of the 20th century, is probably the only place of its kind in the world. Currently, it is known to hold more than 20,000 crosses, including both works of folk artists and simple wooden crosses. A cross made by a Lithuanian cross-maker during the visit of the Pope John Paul II to Lithuania in 1993 can also be found on the hill.
In the past as well as nowadays, cross-making has been a tradition of folk art that has always been communicated in a verbal form or through live examples only. It has never been taught. Crosses and figures of saints have always been carved by amateur folk artists involved in carving as a subordinate activity. In the second half of the 18th through the 19th century, the wood-carvers made artistic sculptures of the saints and ornamented the pulpits or the church pews, the numerous examples of which can be found in the churches of small towns. Such compilations of saints can be found at Utena Local Lore Museum, Telšiai Alka Museum, and many others.