Banknotes of the Latvian lat
Dita Birkenšteina, Latvijas Mākslas akadēmijas Mākslas zinātnes nodaļas studente

The national currency is not only a means of payment, but also an instrument of representation for the state and the nation. The message that is encoded in banknotes and coins is, first of all, important to those who use them on a daily basis, but it serves well to remember that every visitor also comes into contact with the local banknotes or coins at least once, and this is part of what creates an impression about the nation and its values. 5 March 1993 is the date when the first renewed lat banknote was released into circulation – a bill of five lats issued by the Bank of Latvia. This gives the renewed Latvian lat a life-span of exactly twenty years, which is about to end in January of 2014 with Latvia joining the eurozone and introducing the common currency of the European Union. The farewell to the national currency is a good opportunity to look back at what we have been carrying in our wallets for last twenty years.
In spring of this year, a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the design of the Latvian lat called Ls • 20. Years of National Currency Art and curated by Ramona Umblija, member of the Coin Design Commission of the Bank of Latvia, was held at the headquarters of the Bank of Latvia. The exhibition featured more than a hundred different designs of lat banknotes and coins issued during these past twenty years, among them also internationally recognized collector coins. It was a wonderful opportunity not only to see all the national currency designs from the last two decades in the one place, but also to reacquaint oneself or meet the artists who had worked on the designs, as well as a chance to appreciate the variety of coin and banknote designs. Already in the first year of the renewed Latvian currency, which was also the 75th anniversary of the state of Latvia, the Bank of Latvia issued its first collector coins. This became a regular occurrence and is the reason why the number and variety of coin designs far exceeds that of the banknotes – more than ninety designs over the twenty years, as opposed to the banknotes in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 lats.

Initiatives geared towards the renewal of the Latvian lat started already before the restoration of the independence of Latvia. In late 1989, the Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia made a recommendation to announce an open competition for the design of currency banknotes. In 1991, the competition took place, and more than twenty design entries were received which were evaluated by representatives of the Latvian Artists’ Union and the Art Academy of Latvia.(1) The banknote designs jointly developed by Valdis Ošiņš and Imants Žodžiks stood out among the design entries, and this was the design recommended by the state commission(2) after the resolution “On the Production of Republic of Latvia Banknotes and Coins” was passed by the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia.

The project submitted by Ošiņš and Žodžiks caught the attention not only due to the innovative approach to the motif and subject matter (other projects largely imitated the designs of the free state of Latvia in the beginning of the 20th century(3)), but also with its technical solution which was unusually modern for the time. The use of digital techniques gave the banknotes a contemporary look, which the above commission deemed to be an intrinsic quality with regard to the currency design for a new nation state.(4)

The composition of the front side of the lat banknotes has been designed according to the principle of vertically dividing the bill into three parts: the left third contains the nominal value printed in an Arabic numeral with a watermark and a braille number above it. To the right, there is a graphical representation designed for each denomination banknote displaying essential poetic spiritual and cultural motifs pertaining to the Latvian identity: the five-lat bill features an oak-tree, the ten lats – the River Daugava, the banknote of twenty lats – a traditional Latvian homestead, fifty lats – a sailing ship, the hundred-lat bill – a portrait of Krišjānis Barons, and the five hundred-lat banknote – the profile of a Latvian maiden. The composition is finalized by the pattern of a woven Lielvārde belt on the right side of the banknote, topped with the inscription of the banknote’s nominal value. The horizontal bands of the front show the denomination in words, the series number of the banknote and the facsimile signature of the president of the Bank of Latvia. The compositional division of the back of the banknote is similar to the front side, the only difference is that the vertical division starts from the opposite side: the watermark is located at the top right and below it is the national coat of arms. To the left, there are ethnographic designs: the five-lat bill features a distaff, and the other denominations feature a brooch (Ls 10), a traditional design (Ls 20), the coat of arms of Riga (Ls 50), a fragment of the Lielvārde belt (Ls 100) and a bronze head-dress (Ls 500). All in all the visual image of the banknotes is somewhat modest and reserved, but the motifs are expressive enough so that if the banknotes of all nominal values are placed side by side, they tell a story of the Latvian nation and highlight important cultural values. The design of the banknotes in circulation has not changed during these twenty years, there have only been minor nuances added to improve the security features over the years.

One of the most expressive lat banknote motifs is the profile of a Latvian maiden. This image, done in the style of national romanticism by the artist Rihards Zariņš, was struck on the reverse side of silver five-lat coin during the first independent Latvia in the 1920s.(5) The motif of the Latvian maiden in national costume is also used in the design project by Ošiņš and Žodžiks, not only on the front of the banknotes of all nominal values.

The silver five-lat coin has achieved the status of being a sacred relic in social consciousness, but over time the image of a Latvian maiden, popularly nicknamed Milda, has become one of the most characteristic symbols of Latvian identity and often equated to the figure of Latvia at the top of the Freedom Monument. The profile of the Latvian maiden forms an intrinsic part of the visual image of the national currency, both during the first and second independent state of Latvia, and it is only natural that as Latvia joins the eurozone there is a wish to retain this symbolic image by striking it on the reverse of Latvian euro coins. And even though opinions about the introduction of the common European currency differ, that part of society which is against the euro for nostalgic reasons can be assured that one part of the Latvian lat will continue to live on in the euro, and that even after 1 January 2014 Milda will not disappear from Latvian wallets.

Translator into English: Vita Limanoviča

(1) Ducmane K., Vēciņš Ē. The Renewal of the Latvian National Currency. Lats and Santims. From: Money in Latvia. Riga: The Bank of Latvia, 1995, p. 226.
(2) The Commission for the Design of Banknotes and Coins: Jānis Dripe, Kristīne Ducmane, Māra Eihe, Modris Ģelzis, Jānis Krievs, Imants Lancmanis, Pāvils Sakss, Jānis Stradiņš, Laimonis Šēnbergs, Ramona Umblija; the chairman – Imants Daudišs. The commission was delegated to draw up a programme for the production of the new currency, determining an optimal and economically justifiable range of coin and banknote denominations, and to ensure the financing of the programme. See the resolution of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia “On the Production of Republic of Latvia Banknotes and Coins”. (accessed 15.10.2013).
(3) Ramona Umblija’s conversation with Inga Vasiļjeva in the radio show Kultūras rondo on 24.03.2013.
(4) Ibid.
(5) A five-lat silver coin was issued in 1929. In 2003, a golden commemorative coin Pieclatnieks (The Five Lat) was issued after a design by Gunārs Cīlītis.
go back