The Hill of Crosses

[Lauren Greene]

Kryžių kalnas, or the Hill of Crosses, is a Catholic pilgrimage site in northern Lithuania.  A large mound covered with “a tangled forest of crosses” left by visitors, the Hill of Crosses is described as a place  “both precious and mystical” which continues to exist even though it is unorganized and unmanaged (Morris, 403; Journeyman).  From its beginning, the Hill of Crosses has served as a symbol of both the Lithuanian people’s devotion to the Catholic faith and their resistance against foreign rule.

Origin Story

Although the first written records of the Hill of Crosses date to the 1850s, the Hill has two origin stories, which are separated by five hundred years.  The first claims that Lithuanians in the fourteenth century placed crosses and totems on the Hill to protest the occupation of Lithuania by the Catholic Teutonic Order (Brockman, 223).  The Teutonic Order and the people in what is present-day Lithuania were at war with each other for several centuries.  Lithuania, the last pagan state in Europe, converted to Catholicism in the late fourteenth century. When faced with subjugation by the Teutonic Order, it is said that they placed the crosses on what became the Hill of Crosses to demonstrate their resistance.

The second origin story dates the beginning of the Hill of Crosses to the 1831 rebellion against the Russian Empire (Bartulis).  It is said that the relatives of people killed in the rebellion placed the crosses on the Hill to honor the dead.  After the 1863 rebellion against tsarist rule, the number of crosses on the Hill continued to increase.  Some sources even claim that the bodies of the rebels killed during both of these conflicts were “secretly buried [sic] there” and the crosses were erected in their memory and in the memory of others lost in the conflict (Olson, 40).  In both origin stories the Hill of Crosses is a symbol of the people’s resistance to their oppressors, establishing the dominant narrative of the Hill of Crosses as an important site of nationalist resistance (Olson, 34).

Under Soviet Control

By the twentieth century, the Hill of Crosses was well established as a popular pilgrimage site.  People came to leave crosses and to hear Masses and devotions.  During World War II families left crosses on the Hill to mark the missing and to help guide the missing home.  The period during and after World War II is cited by some as the Hill of Crosses’ most active period and also demonstrates how Lithuanians saw the Hill “as intertwined with their nation’s history” (Olson, 4).

It was under the Soviet regime, however, that the role of the Hill of Crosses as a form of resistance was fully realized.  In June 1940, Soviet troops entered Lithuania and began introducing anti-religious policies (Olson, 3).  The Lithuanians’ loyalty towards the Catholic Church was clearly at odds with Soviet ideology and resulted in a system of hostile policies towards the church.   Soviet policies towards Lithuanian Catholics were, in the words of Katherine Olson, the “moral and physical terrorization of the faithful” but also helped to create a strong grassroots movement, which united people through their shared Catholic faith (Olson, 5).  The Soviet government believed the Hill of Crosses to be a “hostile and very harmful symbol” and prevented people from visiting this, and other, holy sites (Olson, 6).

This, however, did not stop people from coming to the Hill of Crosses. One Lithuanian historian provides the following description of the Hill of Crosses:

In Soviet times, the Hill became a symbol of resistance. Through the cross, through religion, it was a struggle against the occupation, against outside ideology – a struggle for freedom. It is like the cross became a weapon that was invincible (Journeyman).

The 1960s marked the beginning of Soviet “bulldozer atheism” that lasted for the next twenty years (Olson, 6).  Over the next twenty years, the Hill of Crosses was leveled three times, covered with waste and sewage, and the crosses covering the Hill were broken, burned, buried, and used as scrap metal (Brockman, 224).  Plans were made to flood the territory, making the Hill of Crosses an “unreachable island” (Olson, 6).  The Soviet army and KGB guarded the Hill and between 1973 and 1975, five hundred crosses were destroyed each year.

The close guard and continual destruction, however, did not prevent people from visiting the Hill and adorning it with crosses.  The Hill became a place for “expression of the belief and faith of individuals” and a symbol of Lithuanian resistance to Soviet rule (Olson, 41).  People would sneak past the Soviet guards and secretly erect crosses at night.  Some of these crosses were simply made of stones laid on the grass, making the Hill look completely empty and free of crosses, and visible only to the faithful who physically visited it (Journeyman).  The Hill of Crosses became a “war of the crosses” which the Soviet Union lost despite its enormous power and resources (Journeyman).

The Hill of Crosses in the Present Day

The Hill of Crosses remains a popular pilgrimage site to this day.  Since Lithuania’s independence, thousands of new crosses have gone up, spreading from the Hill itself into the surrounding meadow (Morris, 404).  In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses, said mass, and placed a cross at the Hill the following year (Olson, 8).  He also requested that a Franciscan friary be opened near the Hill, which was completed in 2000.  Catholics and non-Catholics continue to come to the Hill of Crosses to leave crosses at this continuing memorial of peaceful Lithuanian resistance.

Lithuanian Cross Crafting

Lithuania has an intricate history of kryždirbystė, or cross crafting, beginning after Lithuania was christianized in the fifteenth century, although its roots are based in pre-Christian traditions (Nas, 141).  These crosses are often between four and seven feet high with intricately carved floral motifs on the poles and a crosspiece with a figure of Christ or a saint.  These crosses are erected for protection, as offerings, to express gratitude and suffering.  In 2001, Lithuanian cross crafting was listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (Nas, 141).  A number of these traditional Lithuanian crosses can be found at the Hill of Crosses.

Number of Crosses

Today, the Hill of Crosses is covered in tens of thousands of crosses of all types and sizes (Brockman, 224).  The crosses at the Hill of Crosses were first counted in 1900 by a man named Ksywicki (Bartulis). In 1900, he counted a mere 133 crosses.  This number continued to grow until 1961 when, at the beginning of “bulldozer atheism,” 5,000 crosses were destroyed on the Hill (Bartulis).  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the crosses were again counted: there were 14,387 big crosses, 1,112 measured ten to thirteen feet high and 130 crosses were even taller, and 41,000 crosses smaller than one and one half feet (Bartulis).  Visitors to the Hill of Crosses often try to leave a cross, allowing the Hill to change and grow differently at various points in history.

For much of Lithuanian history, the Hill of Crosses has been a site of “physical but also ideological resistance” to people who threaten the Lithuanian way of life (Olson, 44).  The Hill serves the dual purpose of a national and a religious symbol, which undermined the authority of their Russian and Soviet occupiers and united the Lithuanian people.  Pilgrimage sites like the Hill of Crosses reveal how closely intertwined religion and nationalism are to the Lithuanian people.

                                                                                                                                                            

Works Cited

  • Eugenijus Bartulis, “Kryžių Kalnas: Hill of Crosses,” Accessed 14 March 2012, http://kryziukalnas.lt/?id=44.
  • Norbert C. Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places: Second Edition, Vol. 2: N-Z (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2011).
  • Jan Morris, The World: Life and Travel 1950-2000 (New York: Random House, Inc., 2003).
  • Peter J. M. Nas, “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Culture: Reflections on the UNESCO World Heritage List with CA comment,” Current Anthropology, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2002), 139-148.
  • Katherine L. Olson, “On the Hill of Crosses: Catholicism and Lithuanian National Identity,” MA diss., McMaster University, August 2009.
  • Journeyman Pictures, “The Hill of Crosses – Lithuania,” ABC Australia, 14:32, 28 August 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0nX9PGRW64.

Comments are closed.