The Oldest Monuments

What does the word “krikštas” mean? To most of us it means the sacrament of Baptism, but it also refers to ancient Baltic monuments. These old grave markers, called krikštai, are usually symmetrical figurines of horseheads, birds, plants, hearts, and other symbols. Since the 1800’s cross-shaped monuments began to appear with the advent of Christianity, as krikštai either deteriorated, or were destroyed because they were considered to be remnants of paganism. The figurine-type precursors of headstones were mostly found in Lithuania Minor, in the areas of Protestant faith. They are featured in books on folk art by Paulius Galaunė and Dr. Marija Gimbutas.

Krikštai remain one of the most unique ethnocultural folk art traditions, carved from thick wooden boards. Mostly known in Lithuania and Latvia, their ornamentation and symbolism have roots in ancient Baltic pre-history. They are found in Western Lithuania in the Nemunas River delta area, and in Latvia’s Kurše.

An unusual characteristic of these monuments was that they were erected at the feet of the deceased. The famous Lithuanian author Jonas Basanavičius wrote that according to mythology, the soul of the deceased would first step onto the wooden plaque to rise to the heavens.

Krikštai were much more than remembrances of the dead. They also reflected the worldview of the ancients, very often inscribed with the Tree of Life, unifying the universe, connecting life with after-life.

In late May of this year, the Klaipėda Ethnocultural Centre launched an exhibition and held a forum on the krikštai of Lithuania Minor to promote this ancient folk art. The exhibition includes 14 krikštai on loan from the Neringa Regional Museum, and various photos of these types of grave markers, as well as works by graphic artist and ethnographer Ieva Labutytė, who also curated a national Lithuanian exhibition about them in 2001 which included artists from Latvia, Germany and USA.

The exhibition at the Ethnocultural Centre continues until November 30, 2024.