The renowned fifteenth-century Cretan iconographer Angelos Akotantos (d.1450) painted the icon Christ the Vine during a pivotal and turbulent period of the Church’s history. The collapse of the Byzantine Empire was imminent, leading to a contentious Church council in the cities of Ferrara and Florence (c.1438–45) where leaders strove to unify the Eastern and Western Church. Today, the icon is sequestered in a Cretan monastery; but, like all icons, many versions exist, including this one in the Byzantine Museum in Athens (Mantas 2003: 355–56).
The large figure of Christ with extended arms is seated at the nexus of the intertwined branches, establishing him as the common root and life of the Church (John 15:1–8). An open book, inscribed with excerpts from John 15, is superimposed on the Christ figure at the centre of the icon, suggesting the Word’s centrality. St Peter and St Paul, perhaps representing the two branches of the Church, East and West (Vassilaki 2013–14: 115), are prominently positioned on either side of Christ. They are seated higher than the other apostles while the evangelists sit to Christ’s immediate left and right, dialoguing in pairs. The remaining apostles, like Christ, hold open books and scrolls—their eyes fixed on him. The hanging fruit symbolizes the continuation of the faithful: as they abide in Christ so too he abides in them (John 15:4).
These direct, visual references to unity are built upon an indirect reference to another well-known type of image, The Tree of Jesse (twelfth century onwards). The latter depicts the lineage of Christ: it begins with King David’s father, Jesse, as its root (Isaiah 11:1); various prophets are its branches; and Mary and the Christ child appear at its centre. Such references to the Jesse Tree in the icon of Christ the Vine subtly suggest further layers of unity—not only between the branches of the divided Church, but also between the Church and Israel and thus between the Testaments, for it is as the ‘true vine’ of Israel (John 15:1) that Christ brings life to the Church (John 15:5).
This larger continuity between the Testaments makes a further claim on the Eastern and Western Church to remain united in obedience to Christ (John 15:9–10). ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:10). Jesus shows what sacrifice such love must entail, for ‘greater love has no man than [that he] lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). East and West, like Jesus’s first disciples, must love one another in a sacrificial existence if they are to be true branches of the true vine (John 15:12, 17).
Mantas, Apostolos G. 2003. ‘The Iconographic Subject “Christ the Vine” in Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art’, Τόμος ΚΔ': 347–60
Vassilaki, Maria. 2013–14. ‘Cretan Icon-Painting and the Council of Ferrara/Florence (1438/39)’, ΜΟΥΣΕΙΟ ΜΠΕΝΑΚΗ: 115–28
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. 8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17This I command you, to love one another.