Cross-making intertwines archaic, Christian and Lithuanian traditions, divinity

  • 2011-03-23
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

BLOOD AND SOUL: Cross-making requires creativity and total immersion into the work, says Liudas Ruginis.

KLAIPEDA - Liudas Ruginis, a distinguished cross-maker in Samogitia, Lithuania’s ethnographic region in the northwest, sits astride a thick wooden pole, shaving it smoothly with a drawing-knife and a plane. When glimpsing the resin-soaked chips flying exuberantly away after his each stroke, you cannot fight the impression that God himself is conducting the carver’s sinewy hands. Only a few glimmering drops of sweat on his thoughtful forehead betrays his human tenacity in the art that he is revered for - carving the Cross and making crosses. With dozens of his carved crosses guarding the serenity and tranquility of dwellers of vicinities as far away as over a few hundred kilometers, Ruginis has already carved himself a deserved reputation for his work as one of the several hundred craftsmen in this Baltic nation who keeps alive the centuries-old tradition of cross-making.

Traditional Lithuanian crosses combine the elements of architecture, sculpture, blacksmith art, and sometimes even primitive painting. Vegetative ornaments, the motifs of the sun, dawn or a bird, representing the tree of life, go all the way back to archaic times and represent the approach of the sacral space. To beg for divine grace or to express gratitude, crosses are usually built as memorials for the dead, or as signs of spiritual protection.

Many crosses can be seen especially near the crossroads and homesteads in the remote villages and settlements of Zemaitija (Samogitia), Aukstaitija (Upper Lithuania), and Dzukija (Lower Lithuania). Some of the crosses are slim and slender, while others have a thick trunk with numerous entwined figures that resemble more a sculpture than a cross. Specific old wooden crosses can be seen in the Curonian Strip, displaying vivid natural motifs, such as birds and plants. The crosses at the Evangelic cemeteries are usually rich in metal ornaments.

“Cross-making is a very unique craft. I would rather call it an art than a craft. One can nail two poles together. However, to hammer together a real, divinity-shining cross is a much-effort exertion, however, a very rewarding art. It is something that truly worships the Creator,” Ruginis, the only certified cross-maker in the Salantai region, in Samogitia, admited to The Baltic Times.

Cross-making and its related traditions, in Lithuania, go beyond the religious template - a symbol of the Lithuanian national movement for the country’s independence throughout 1940-1990. During the Soviet era, when building crosses was prohibited or restricted by the occupants, despite the ban, they were being tenaciously erected all over Lithuania. As early as the end of the 19th century, marking the oppression of the Russian Empire, those monuments of various forms became one of the expression forms of the Lithuanian national identity.

The 67-year-old Ruginis has devoted most of his adult life to cross-making - over 40 years by now. Even during the Soviet era, scolded by local Communist party apparatchiks (functionaries) and being stripped away of his tools, he did not cease carving the Crosses and hammering crosses together. Oh, yes, he did this secretly, causing local communists to flare up at the sight of newly erected crosses. They say that even the most ideologically devoted politrukai (secretaries of the Communist Party in charge of the expansion of surveillance of the political doctrine) did not venture to order to saw them down. Well, indeed, some did, but it is rumored the crosses would not succumb to the sawteeth. Do you believe that?

“I have always liked cross-making. It is in my blood and soul. I have inherited the propensity for cross-making from my granddad, who was very good at [the craft], yet perhaps under the rule of a czar. I like the creativity that is mandatory when taking on the task – it is like submerging yourself into an utterly different dimension. My son was also a talented cross-maker, though he was keener to write poetry. Alas, he has departed the world. The cross-making and the faith have helped me to heal from the loss,” Ruginis confessed.

Though he prides himself on his own cross-making techniques and peculiarities, the master does not disdain other wood-and-plane brothers. Probably the most prominent Lithuanian cross-maker is Vincas Svirskis, who is well documented in Lithuanian folk books. The folk craftsman was carving crosses in the second half of the 19th century, through the beginning of the 20th century. His crosses, entwined with multiple figures of saints, closely resemble Lithuanian sculptural baroque compositions. Interestingly, Svirskis used to make his crosses from a solid tree trunk, with the roots looking up. Lithuanian museums hold nearly 50 works of this talented cross-maker, including 14 pieces at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vilnius.

Over 40 years in the art, Ruginis, sticking to the core of the craft, admits to have learnt a lot from the cross-carving prodigy. “Apart from being persistent, tenacious and hard-working, virtues other than these, for cross-carving, are perhaps not needed. However, I am against the modernism in cross-making that I hear about sometimes. It is up to the younger craftsmen, but I do believe that the cross has to be traditional, as the traditions have evolved through many centuries. A cross has to be modest if erected in Samogitia, more decorative if put up in Upper Lithuania,” the cross-maker maintains. Nonetheless, as meek as he is, Ruginis admonishes that certain iconographic knowledge is “highly advisable.” Oh, does anyone doubt this?

The art of cross-making is recognized as unique and was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 2001. Quite ironically, Lithuania was the last country in Europe to reject paganism for Catholicism, in the 14th century, and just a few decades ago people still faced persecution for erecting crosses under the iron rule of the USSR. Nevertheless, the problems did not hinder the rise of the famed Hill of Crosses near Siauliai, in northern Lithuania, a hill now festooned with thousands of crosses of every imaginable size and shape. The shrine has long been a favorite pilgrimage spot for thousands of Catholics. It is considered a unique historic place in the world, exhibiting crosses made by numerous folk artists. A distinctive cross, made by a Lithuanian cross-maker during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Lithuania in 1993, can also be found on the mound.

“Although crosses are being hammered together and erected all over in the Christian world, Lithuanian crosses are distinguished for their traditionalism, splendor and ornamental abundance. The peak of the craftsmanship in Lithuania was reached a century ago, when there lived the aforementioned Svirskis. One is a bad cross-maker, who does not know him, or disdains his legacy,” Ruginis says.

In the past, as well as nowadays, cross-making has been a tradition of folk-art that has always been expressed in a verbal form or through live examples. Interestingly, it has never been taught, as it was believed any apprenticeship might be doomed by a divine intervention. Thus, amateur folk artists are involved in carving as a subordinate activity. Is that another prejudice about the art?

In the second half of the 18th, through the 19th century, the then-wood-carvers made artistic sculptures of the saints and ornamented the pulpits or the church pews, numerous examples of which can still be found in the churches of small towns. Hence, such compilations of saints can be found at Utena Local Lore Museum, Telsiai Alka Museum, and many others. The 400-year tradition includes not only crosspiece crosses, usually decorated with ornaments, rays or a nimbus, but also pillar-type crosses and pillared shrines, with statuettes of saints which, in the past, were usually put up at the front of richer homesteads, also in churchyards.

Some believe the tradition of pillared shrines comes from the pre-Christian period. The meticulously carved figure of the Pensive Christ is another popular image in Lithuanian folk-art, depicting the Lord sitting with one hand, leaning against his cheek, deep in transcendence. Oh, does anyone know what the Lord looks like? I may be blamed for blasphemy, but, obviously, the cross-carvers are not.

Village seniors can tell that the best-made crosses and pillared shrines can last for dozens of years, if not several centuries. The reason for that is rather earthly – traditionally, crosses are made from Lithuanian oak, known for its unique ability to withstand adverse nature for centuries. “Every time I see somewhere an old, cracked leaning cross, a vital symbol of the longevity of the generation-to-generation traditions, I am encompassed with a mesmerizing feeling. Though slowly succumbing to the burden of the years, the old crosses tend to shine with a relentless strength, as if purporting eternity,” the Salantai dweller relates.

Did you ever wonder what part of a cross requires the most elaborate preparation and carrying out? “Lithuanian crosses are hardly imagined without intricate ornament crowns. The decorations are usually carved in the so-called little armpits of the cross. Usually, the embellishment consists of brier leaflets, meadow flowers and other folk and sacral symbols. A good cross-maker has to be well aware of the specifics of the embellishment. Otherwise, there is a danger to ‘overcharge’ the cross with too many ornaments. Therefore, I am convinced that a good cross-maker must be a seasoned sculptor with a good command of folklore,” Ruginis maintains.

However, it is not enough to carve a good quality, “realistic” cross. Even the best-carved cross will look shoddy if Jesus’ Suffering on the cross will look too phony and snide. “The God Son’s Suffering has to be proportionate, well thought out. If a cross is too big and the Suffering is shown too tiny, the whole thing will look too snide. Moreover, on the contrary, a relatively small cross with an over-exaggerated Suffering will look bad, too. When I started carving crosses, once they would be put in and everyone would wait for a priest’s arrival, my heart would pound, fearing the priest might not like something about my cross and refuse to sanctify it. These kinds of things do happen even with good cross-makers. Thanks to God, it has never happened to me,” the artisan confessed.

Over many centuries, crosses were usually erected in rue gardens at homesteads, and small wooden benches would be placed as if inviting a passer-by to sit down for a minute and say a prayer, giving a thought about the proprietors of the homestead, and wishing them well.

Did the cross master ever experience an extraordinary enlightenment or any other divine manifestation? “Just approaching a to-be cross demands the soul’s full purification and elevation. You cannot carve a cross if you are sullen and dismayed. I do not consider myself as a very pious man; however, I always say a little prayer before coming up to my creation. It helps me stay focused. To answer your question, a while ago, some non-pious villager asked me to make him a cross. I had heard his wife and he himself were very cantankerous characters. So I made him the cross, and he put it up at his homestead. Shortly thereafter, I met him somewhere and he started to thank me wholeheartedly, catching me by surprise. Then he told me that, once the cross was up, both his wife and he would frequently sit on a bench next to it. The more they sat, the more they spoke to each other, the better they started getting along. ‘Is it not a miracle?,’ the villager sounded exalted,” Ruginis related.

You may believe it or not, but in the Lithuanian Christian traditions, crosses have long been incarnating divine meaning and purposefulness, ostensibly giving protection from misfortune and giving divine blessings. “We, Samogitians, are very proud of our crosses. They affect everyone soothingly, protect and take care of us. Therefore, considering that every cross-maker has to exhibit an enlightened soul, it is needless to say, have clean hands and body before approaching a cross. Otherwise, the cross’s divinity will be tainted,” said a convinced Ruginis.