2018-02-15 Back to list

The Story of the Lithuanian Tricolour

A hundred years for a flag is a relatively solid period, but let us not forget that for half of this time the tricolour design was alive only in people’s memory.

The Lithuanian flag, just like the restored Lithuania which is turning 100 on February 16th, is celebrating its centennial  this year. It was April 25th, 1918, when the Lithuanian Council approved the project for the country’s flag. It now included three horizontal lines – yellow, green, and red.

This is not a story about Kaunas specifically, but our readers should be happy to know that we have Tadas Daugirdas, a famous archaeologist, painter, head of the Kaunas City Museum, to thank for the yellow colour (symbolising “the sun, light and prosperity”) being added to the previously two-coloured design.

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Tadas Daugirdas in his office. © Kaunas City Museum

The head of Lithuanian Heraldry Commission, Dr. Agnė Railaitė-Bardė comments on the importance of these three colours.

Vytis is missing

The story of the Lithuanian tricolour is a long and complicated one. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the search for national colours was on, and blue, green, red, white and yellow were all considered for different sorts of combinations, no less than tens of options. Interestingly, the first designs of the Lithuanian flag were created abroad due to the complex political circumstances, and Lithuanian fellowships in the US were responsible for most visualisations. By 1905 the issue of the national flag was being raised in back in Lithuania too – Jonas Basanavičius, one of the leaders of the nation, stated that a red flag with a white knight in the middle of it is the oldest flag the country has. The red-based design got rejected because of negative connotations, but J. Basanavičius came back with the same idea 12 years later. This time the flag was “too difficult to sew”. They started to look for simpler colours in folk art, considering many combinations for a long time, until the Lithuanian Council approved the yellow-green-red design in 1918, however with a Vytis (Lithuanian knight) in a top corner’s red area.

Four years later, the constitution mysteriously appointed the status of a state flag to the tricoloured version without the Vytis, even though state flags typically had the country’s coat of arms in them. Right up to World War II, there were many talks about the flag with plenty of new options available.


An authentic woollen Lithuanian tricolour from the interwar era. Property of the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art. Photo by Teodoras Biliūnas

50 years in memories

A hundred years for a flag is a relatively solid period, but let us not forget that for half of this time the tricolour design was alive only in people’s memory. Thankfully, Lithuanians living abroad were active in declaring the country’s freedom and showing the yellow-green-red flag around.

We could say that the older a symbol is the more important or respectful it gets. On the other hand, the meaning that people attach to it is no less important. For example, the red flag with a Vytis was born in the 15th century or even earlier, but the tricolour was chosen both 100 years ago and when the independence was being reinstated 28 years back.


An authentic woollen Lithuanian tricolour from the interwar era. Property of the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art. Photo by Teodoras Biliūnas.

A renaissance of the historic flag

The historic Lithuanian flag is actually getting more and more popular within our society today. Perhaps one of the reasons behind it is that the official state flag is often publically compared to the ones of a few African countries, but that should not be a problem since many states have similar flags, like Poland, Monaco and Indonesia. The historic memories keep praising the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, when the red flag with a Vytis on it was one of the crucial symbols of the territory. Also, maybe we don’t have bad associations with red designs anymore, which were there due to Soviet occupation. Red and silver were two colours chosen for the heraldry of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on most occasions. Additionally, many famous Lithuanians are now urging others to use the historic flag too.

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The historic flag of Lithuania. Author unknown

People need symbols

As Dr. Agnė Railaitė-Bardė sees it, the need for heraldic symbols, flags, various patriotic elements is growing in Lithuania, at least in the public space. Certainly, this is more evident during state celebrations, folk events or international sport competitions. Official symbols unite us and make us look unique, and people feel the attraction to them more now since the centennial celebrations are here. The larger number of requests for the Lithuanian Heraldry Commission recently is proof of this tendency.

What do flags mean to us?

A flag is one of the essential symbols of the state, originating in ancient times, when Romans started using it along with other military signs not only for practical purposes but also to boost the spirit of their soldiers. The flag was considered sacred; it was kept in a small temple during peacetime, and losing this symbol was seen as a terrible embarrassment. The flag rituals became very popular in medieval times, however, we now have unity and respect linked to the state’s attributes too. These symbols consolidate our society and keep our historic memory intact. Without uniting our strengths and knowing our roots, what kind of statehood are we creating?

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February 16th in Kaunas in 2017. Photo by Kaunas city municipality

The original article by Julija Račiūnaitė was published in the February edition of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine. You can read the whole magazine here.
The magazine is grateful to Reda Stuinienė at the Applied Art Department of M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum for displaying an authentic tricolour from the 1930s for the photoshoot.


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