I think of Lithuanians first placing crosses on the hill during the nineteenth century to memorialize those who died in battle, their bodies never found. Many people continue to come to the hill to leave behind a cross or to remember loved ones who have long since passed away. As visitors continue to add their own crosses to the hill, the site expands and thickens—it is as alive and vibrant as the country’s Catholic heritage.
I don’t have a cross to add, but I come wanting to see the site with my own eyes. Approaching the stairway carved into the hill, I notice the largest crosses first—most of which are wood, but many are metal. Most are simple and unassuming, but many are elaborate and intricate. To my right I find a giant sculpture of Jesus Christ standing on a pedestal, from which hang dozens of small crosses. His arms are outstretched, beckoning visitors to gaze into the vast sea of crosses and ponder their meaning—their religious significance and their testament of faith.
At first the stairway leads straight upward. I take my time walking up the hill and let my eyes adjust to the world of crosses. There are literally piles of them in some areas. Hundreds of little ones are nailed across larger ones, and hundreds more hang on rosaries. There are thousands of rosary beads, their array of colors filling in gaps, covering walls of tiny crosses behind them.
The stairway turns, and I begin to grasp just how large this hill really is. From far away it didn’t look so imposing, but once I am amongst the mass of crosses, it is easy to get lost within it for hours. I find bright finely carved crucifixes, crosses of simple metal poles, dozens of crooked crosses leaning into one another, others carved of dark glossy stone, and thin crosses stretching toward the hazy sky.
I find a portrait of Christ praying; it is slid between crosses, standing upright on the ground. There are sharp, jagged crosses as well as old, weary ones, weathered and worn. Hundreds of little crosses have names carved into them, in remembrance either of the dead or of the living who desire blessings. I find an effigy of Mary kneeling, and there are pictures of her somber face intermingled with the crosses—some in wooden frames, others in circular golden ones.
Wherever I turn, there are hundreds of new crosses to gaze into. I see crucifixes far too large for the tiny metal figures of Christ nailed to the front. A stone cross accompanied by a silent winged angel catches my eye. I find aged wooden crosses with birdhouses attached to them, either below Christ or framed around him. Beside them are stylized white crosses with circles framing the back, or with lines representing rays of light emanating from Christ. From every cross, dozens of smaller ones are hanging, and often even smaller ones are hanging from those.
Despite the claustrophobic aura the hill emanates, the crosses stand tranquil and still. The visitors maintain the solemn peace of the site. I am free to take as long as I wish walking up the stairway carved into the hill, and I slowly find the scene increasingly dreamlike. There is an aura of sadness behind the crosses and the dying figures of Christ, but I feel an array of emotions much stronger—hope, trust, commitment, love. Though I don’t know the individual stories behind each cross, I can tell that a great deal of thought and care has been put into this hill, which stands as a symbol of the country’s unity.
At the top of the hill I find many more crosses as well as a life-size painted statue of Jesus Christ, who holds up a cross to his side. He is wearing a white robe with a red sheet draped across his shoulder, his right arm lifted up toward the sky. The expression on his face is tired and weary—yet certain. He looks out to the world, somber and alive. Across the cross he holds are words inscribed in Latin: “In Hoc Signo Vinces!”
“With this as your standard, you shall have victory!” The words continue to inspire thousands of Lithuanians as well as visitors from all across the world.
To learn more about the Hill of Crosses, such as the history of the site and information on how to get there yourself, click here.