GARLIAVA, Lithuania (Reuters Life!) - Adolfas Teresius sits astride a thick wooden pole measuring out a small figure of a man.
Teresius has carved himself a reputation for his work as one of the several hundred craftsmen in this Baltic nation who keep alive the centuries-old tradition of cross-making.
His workshop is filled with wooden figures of saints, crosses and different versions of Christ on the cross.
“For me, cross-crafting is not only important as a lasting form of national art, but is also a symbol of our resistance,” he told Reuters in his workshop in this small town in central Lithuania, some 100 km (62 miles) from the capital Vilnius.
“Despite persecution, crosses kept being put up.”
The art of cross-making is recognized as unique and was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 2001.
Ironically, Lithuania was the last country in Europe to abandon paganism for Catholicism in the 14th century and just a few decades ago, people faced persecution for erecting crosses under the iron rule of the former Soviet Union.
Putting up crosses was also banned by Tsarist Russian authorities after a failed uprising in 1863.
But such problems did not stop the rise of the famed Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania, a mound which is now festooned with 100,000 crosses of every size and shape and which is a favorite pilgrimage place for Catholics.
Teresius said he became a cross-maker after seeing crosses being torn down from the Hill of Crosses during Soviet times, though crosses kept re-appearing.
Unlike its Lutheran Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, like its southern neighbor, Poland, with which it was for centuries in union.
“The tradition of cross-crafting in Lithuania embraces some 400 years, and it has survived until nowadays despite bans and repressions,” said Ale Paciulpaite from the Lithuanian folk culture centre in Vilnius.
“It would not have survived so long, if it was not so deeply rooted in Lithuanians’ way of life and their world view.”
Cross-making 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.
Pillared shrines are one of the most common Lithuanian folk culture monuments, put up not only next to the homes, but also in the fields and near roads or rivers in the belief they could help protect people from disasters or illnesses.
Saint George, the patron saint of households, and Saint Isidore, the patron saint of farmers, are popular figures for pillared shrines next to farms or crops, Teresius said.
Some believe the tradition of pillared shrines comes from the pre-Christian period.
“It seems that in those times Lithuanians used to build small wooden houses for home spirits, and when Christianity arrived, the saints moved in naturally,” Teresius said.
The figure of the Pensive Christ is another popular image in Lithuanian folk art, depicting Christ sitting with one hand against his cheek, deep in thought.
Teresius said the figure was especially popular at the end of 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, when Lithuania was breaking away from the former Soviet Union.
“The figure was a sort of symbol of the country, which was wondering where it should go at that time,” he said.
These days, placing a cross on the Hill of Crosses is an important part of marriage ceremonies. Newlyweds Vitalijus Obrikas and wife Agneta have just added a half-meter high cross to the already crowded Hill of Crosses.
“We put up our cross as a plea to God to protect our family, and to send us a happy and joyful life,” Obrikas said.
Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis, editing by Paul Casciato