First, a little vocabulary. The Menaion , (ή Μηναίον) — from the Greek word for “month” — is a twelve-volume set of Eastern Orthodox liturgical books that includes lives of the saints for each month of the year. By extension, the term Menaia (plural form) is applied to calendar icons depicting the saints for each month. These are traditionally found in sets of twelve separate icons. We can just call them “Month” icons. Such icons are rather common, though finding a complete set of them is not.
Even more uncommon is finding a “Year” icon — in Russian Mineya Godovaya (Минея годовая). Such a “Year” icon contains hundreds of separate figures, and is thus likely the most detailed and complex icon type.
Here is a “Year” icon. At the center is the” Resurrection” — the most important festival of the Eastern Orthodox year. Surrounding it are twelve “month” segments, depicting the major saints and most important festivals for each of the twelve months. We have seen the “Resurrection” before as the central image in icons of the major Church festivals. And we have seen “month” icons, each depicting a separate month. But here, not only are the twelve month icons all joined together on one image, but surrounding them in the outer border are the so-called “miracle-working” icons of Mary that are celebrated in each month of the Church year.
These Marian icons, though not depicting absolutely every icon so venerated in Russian Orthodoxy, nonetheless represent the standard old list of “official” types. On “Year” icons they are shown in simplified form, without the detail one often finds in individual Marian icons. Even in this small photo, one can recognize the “Unburnt Thornbush” type as the eighth from the left in the top row, and beside it, easily identified by its red face, is the Ognevidnaya type — the “Fiery-faced” icon of Mary.
It makes sense that “Year” icons, because of the amount of work necessary to paint them and their consequent rarity on today’s market, are generally quite expensive, and one is most likely to find them in museum collections, such as that of the Icon Museum at Kampen in the Netherlands, where this representative example is housed.
The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) wrote in the 14th century in the 166th of his Songs (Canzoniere):
Vergine bella, che di sol vestita, coronata di stelle, al sommo Sole piacesti sí, che ’n te Sua luce ascose, amor mi spinge a dir di te parole:
“Beautiful Virgin,who is clothed with the sun,
Crowned with stars, on high the sun
You pleased so, that he hid his light in you;
Love moves me to speak words of you.”
This motif of the woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars comes from Revelation (Apocalypse) 12:1:
“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:”
This figure became known as the “Apocalyptic Woman” or the “Woman Clothed with the Sun,” and was considered a symbol of the Church, but it also became associated with Mary, as we see in Petrarch’s song.
Though there were earlier and more complex artistic depictions of the woman in Revelation 12, in the 1400s a form of the “Apocalyptic Woman” developed that became widespread in both southern and northern Europe. It is commonly known in German as the Strahlende Madonna — the “Shining” or “Radiant” Madonna. In such images, Mary stands full-length, usually holding her child, and her body is surrounded by rays of light. Here is a Spanish example:
According to tradition, an image of this type was brought to Moscow by the Lithuanian Sofia Vitovtovna (1371–1453), wife of Grand Duke Vasiliy (Basil) the 1st. In any case, the Western Catholic image spread in Russian iconography of the 17th century.
In Russian, such images had two names, and may be called either “Blessed Heaven” or “What Shall We Call You?,” both titles taken from this text, a Marian hymn for the first hour:
Что Тя наречем, о Благодатная? Небо, яко возсияла еси Солнце Правды; рай, яко прозябла еси Цвет нетления; Деву, яко пребыла еси нетленна; Чистую Матерь, яко имела еси на святых Твоих объятиях Сына, всех Бога. Того моли спастися душам нашим
“What shall we call you, O Blessed? Heaven, for you have shone forth the Sun of righteousness? Paradise, for you have budded forth the Flower of immortality? Virgin, for you have remained undefiled? Pure Mother, for you have held in your holy embrace your Son, God of all? Pray to him that our souls be saved.”
Due to the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, the text used by Old Believers varies slightly from the “State Church” text:
Что тя наречем обрадованная [“glad one/rejoicing one”], небо яко восияла еси, солнце правды рай, яко возрастила еси цвет нетления, деву, яко пребыла еси нетленна чистая… моли спастися душам нашим.
So when you see a “What Shall We Call You?” icon with a text reading “Chto tya narechem obradovannaya...” it is most likely an Old Believer icon.
Here is an example of the simpler form, here given the “Blessed Heaven” title:
Now that you have learned to recognize this type, be aware that there are substantial variations in the basic form. Some examples show Mary standing on the moon, either crescent (as is common in the Western Catholic versions), or full. You might find her even standing on the sun, or in other examples (particularly more recent “State Church” icons), she may stand on a cloud, or simply in the air.
In certain more complicated examples, Marian symbols are depicted at both sides — a throne, a closed door, a censer, a ladder, etc. One would hardly expect the icon shown below — which contains those symbols — to have the same title as the icon above, but it does nonetheless. It too is titled Благодатное Небо — Blagodatnoe Nebo — “Blessed Heaven”:
Let’s look more closely at the beginning of the inscription around the central image:
It is a bit difficult to see clearly in this small image, but nonetheless we can determine that it begins with these words:
ЧТО ТЯ НАРЕЧЕМ О БЛАГОДАТНАЯ НЕБО…. CHTO TYA NARECHEM O BLAGODATNAYA NEBO….
“What shall we call you O Blessed; Heaven….”
So we see it includes that phrase sometimes used as an alternate title for such images.
Let’s take a look a the beginning of the extensive inscription in the outer border:
It begins with these words:
Глаголы моя внуши, Г[о]с[по]ди, разумей звание мое. Glagolui moya vnushi, Gospodi, razumey zvanie moe.
“Hear my words, Lord, attend to my cry.”
This is where knowledge of the Bible comes in handy. If one is a real Bible whiz (not that it is of much use in other respects), one may recognize that as the beginning of Psalm 5, which the King James version gives as:
“Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation.”
One should not be surprised by the differences in wording. The Hebrew Masoretic text was used in translating the King James version of the Old Testament, but Eastern Orthodox Bibles follow the Greek Septuagint text, which often varies from the meaning of the Hebrew text.
For icon studies, however, that does not matter much. We can identify the text in the outer border as Psalm 5, and that is sufficient for our purposes here.
There is also another very different icon type named “What Shall We Call You,” showing scenes of Mary enthroned, Mary above Jesus in Paradise (with the Repentant Thief Rakh), the Birth of Jesus, the Visit of the Magi, along with a number of other figures.
And, if you are not confused enough already, there is yet another type that should be distinguished from the basic “Blessed Heaven” image. It is called the Солнечная, the “Of the Sun” icon. Its iconography also comes from the “Apocalyptic Woman” text of Revelation 12:1:
“И явилось на небе великое знамение: жена, облеченная в солнце;” I yavilos na nebe velikoe znamenie: zhena, oblechennaya v solntse;
“And there appeared a great wonder/sign in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:”
In the case of the Solnechnaya/Solnechnuiya type, however, the radiant mandorla (a mandorla is a full-body, almond-shaped halo) behind Mary is replaced by a very large and reddish image of the sun with two eyes, as in this example, in which Mary stands on the moon:
Though it is not an Eastern Orthodox icon, the Mexican image called the “Virgin of Guadalupe” is also an “Apocalyptic Woman” image, and though it is Roman Catholic, it is very much in the tradition one finds in Eastern Orthodoxy of supposedly miraculously-appearing images and dubious stories of origin. It has the typical “Shining Madonna” mandorla that we find in European images and in many “Blessed Heaven” types, though in the Guadalupe image Mary stands on the crescent moon, hands together and head inclined, without the child Jesus:
According to its origin story, the Guadalupe image is said to have appeared miraculously on the tilma (mantle) of an Aztec convert named Juan Diego, to whom the Virgin Mary is held to have appeared on Tepeyac Hill (a site sacred to the Aztec earth goddess Tonantzin). The legend relates that at one point she told him to go to a certain place where he found Castilian roses blooming in winter. He filled his tilma with the miraculous roses, and when he opened it to show a bishop as proof of his Marian apparition, the tilma was found to have the image of the Virgin imprinted on it — not painted, but “not made by hands” as the Russians and Greeks say of certain of their supposedly “miraculous” images.
It is a colorful story, and it has led to the popular adoption of the Virgen de Guadalupe as a kind of unofficial national image for Mexicans and many Americans of Mexican background. But it is fiction, not history — just pious propaganda for a painting that was done by a native artist following the typical European models of the period, and there is nothing “miraculous” about its appearance or its materials.
We can see a distinct similarity in posture between the Guadalupe image and another “Apocalyptic Woman” type — one of the “Vilna” icons known as the Vilenskaya-Ostrobramskaya — the Vilna “Dawn Gate” icon named after the gate in the Lithuanian capitol city of Vilnius above which it was and still is kept in a chapel. Here is an illustration:
In both the Guadalupe and Ostrobramskaya images, Mary inclines her head, though the hands are in a posture of prayer in one and crossed in a sign of humility in the other. And of course the Ostrobramskaya is a half-figure image, with the crescent ordinarily beneath Mary’s feet moved up frame her waist.
While mentioning “Vilna” (Vilenskaya) types, we should also add the “standing” Vilenskaya type, depicted here:
As we see, it too is one of the “Apocalyptic Woman” types, showing Mary standing on the crescent moon (some examples merely show her on clouds). The type is rather variable. Mary may gesture toward the child Jesus on her left arm; she may also hold a scepter in her right hand, which in other examples may be held out to the side. Sometimes she is already crowned (as here), while in others, two angels place a crown upon her head. Icons of this type are commonly quite Westernized in appearance. Little is known about about the “standing” Vilenskaya type. Its origin story says it appeared in the year 1341, and was kept in a monastery on the outskirts of Vilna.
And while we are discussing “Vilna” icons, though it is not an “Apocalyptic Woman” type, to avoid confusion we should mention the Vilenskaya-Odigitriya type. We can tell from the Odigitriya part of its name that it is one of the icons in which Mary gestures with one hand toward the child Jesus on her opposite arm, as though “showing the way,” which is essentially what the Odigitriya title means, though that is the Russian phonetic form of the Greek Hodigitria. Translated rather than phoneticized into Russian, the term is Путеводительница — Putevoditel’nitsa.
The Vilenskaya-Odigitrya is another of those icons attributed (incorrectly) by legend to St. Luke. Its origin story says that it was first sent from Jerusalem to Constantinople. Next it travelled from Constantinople to the rulers of the region known as Galicia and “Red Russia” (Red Ruthenia), which was in what today is southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. When the princedom of Galicia fell, the icon came into the possession of the Prince of Moscow. A different story, however, says the icon was brought to Moscow by Princess Sophia, upon her marriage to Grand Duke Ivan III.
In 1495 the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III, gave it as blessing to his daughter Elena on her marriage to the Lithuanian Prince Alexander. The icon was taken to Vilna/Vilnius in Lithuania, thus its title.
The Vilenskaya-Odigitiya type often demonstrates the flexibility with which painters treated the postures of figures in some Marian icons. In standard examples of the type, Mary holds her child on her left arm, and gestures toward him with her right hand. The legs of the child hang down side by side. In some versions, however, the position of the legs of the child is changed, with the right leg bending under the left, so that the sole of the right foot is toward the viewer. That is the Hodigitria form often seen in the Tikhvin type. Here is a Vilenskaya icon using that position variation:
It has a very elaborate silver riza (icon cover) with colorful floral cloisonné ornamentation in the halos, very typical of better-quality work during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. The robes are done in intricate silver filigree.
In an earlier posting, I discussed the Pokrov image of Mary — the “Protection” image, which shows her appearing in the air above congregants in the Church of the Vlakhernae at Constantinople, holding her veil above them as a sign of protection.
There is, however, another related but visually quite different icon type of Mary related to protection. Not surprisingly, it is called the Pokrovitelnitsa, “The Protectress.”
For the origins of this concept, we may look to the earliest-known Marian hymn/prayer, found written in Greek on a Coptic papyrus from Egypt — Rylands Papyrus #470. It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.” Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν………..”Under your compassion
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε………………We flee for refuge, God-birther
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας……………………….Our petitions
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει…………….Do not disregard in affliction
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς….But rescue us from danger
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη………Only Pure, only Blessed.”
We can paraphrase it as:
“We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God; do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.”
It is noteworthy that in this prayer, Mary is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, but rather approached directly for her powers of deliverance.
It is not surprising that we find this earliest-known prayer to Mary in Egypt. Egypt was the land of the goddess Isis, the mother of the god Horus, and one of her titles was Mut Netjer,” “Mother of the God,” which we may liken to Theotokos –– “Birth-Giver of God” in Greek. As I have said before, as Christianity spread in the Greco-Roman world (which included Egypt at that time), the worship of the old gods was first discouraged, then persecuted, so their places and functions in the hearts of the populace were gradually replaced by Christian saints, the most prominent of which was Mary, who took on the role of the new Mother Goddess.
I have said that the Sub Tuum is the earliest-known Marian prayer, but just how early is it? How long did it take early Christians to begin calling upon Mary? Well, this is disputed. One scholar, based on handwriting style, dates the papyrus fragment as early as the 200s c.e., but others, taking handwriting and other evidence into account, place it in the 300s to 400s c.e. The later period is generally favored because there is no other evidence of prayer to Mary in the 200s, nor was the term Theotokos then in common use. The use of Theotokos as a title of Mary was only officially authorized at the Council of Ephesus, in 431 c.e., after a controversy over whether Mary should be called “Birthgiver of Christ” or “Birthgiver of God.” The latter won out.
Gregory Nazianzen, who died about 390 c.e., tells in his account of the sufferings of St. Justina that “she prayed earnestly to the Virgin for help.” So we know that people were praying to Mary in the latter part of the 4th century.
So just how old then, is the Sub Tuum Praesidium fragment? C. H. Roberts, who published papyrus #470, wrote in his catalog:
“Lobel would be unwilling to place 470 later than the third century. But such individual hands are hard to date, and it is almost incredible that a prayer addressed directly to the Virgin in these terms could be written in the third century. The Virgin was spoken of as Θεοτόκος [Theotokos] by Athanasius ; but there is no evidence even for private prayer addressed to her (cf. Greg. Naz. Orat. xxiv. II) before the latter part of the fourth century, and I find it difficult to think that our text was written earlier than that.”
So the date of the fragment remains imprecise, with the latter half of the 4th century seeming most likely to me, from present evidence.
But what does all this have to do with icons? It is the notion of the “protection” of Mary, of supplicants going to her for security in times of trouble.
In the standard Pokrov type, Mary holds her veil over congregants for protection. That is the icon type popular in the East, in Tsarist Russia. This form of the “Protection” icon was not generally found in Greek Orthodoxy.
In the Roman Catholic West, however, the protection of Mary was visualized somewhat differently, as Mary spreading wide her mantle, and people gathering under it on both sides for protection, as in this early Tuscan example from the Cenacolo di Santo Spirito in Florence. It is called the Madonna della Misericordia, or more commonly in English, “Our Lady of Mercy”:
In the later years of Russian Orthodox iconography, the Western Madonna della Misericordia image was borrowed as an icon type, though it was not common. Here is an example. The title inscription reads “The ‘Protectress’ Most Holy Mother of God.” But it is often known by the title Покрый нас кровом крылу Твоею — Pokruiy nas krovom kruilu Tvoeiu — “Protect us with the Shelter of Your Wings.”
As we see, it depicts the basic Madonna della Misericordia image of Mary standing, holding her mantle out to take in and protect supplicants beneath it. But certain changes are found when this image is used in Russian iconography. It is, for example, standard in Russian Orthodox versions of the type to give Mary wings, reflecting Revelation 12:14:
“And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”
This so-called “Apocalyptic Woman” is considered a symbol of the Church in Eastern Orthodoxy, but Mary is also considered to represent the Church. Mary is also found with wings, for example, in certain Deisis representations.
Another element added to this particular example, though not found in all icons of the type, is the wall in the background. That connects this example with the icon type known as the Nerushimaya Stena — “The Unshakeable Wall,” as well as the “Wall to Virgins” type (see my earlier posting on that icon). And to emphasize that, this example has a banner at its base with a heavily abbreviated Slavic inscription, a slight variation on a line from the Canon to the Most Holy Mother of God:
“Save from harm your servants, O Mother of God, Virgin, for we all flee to you after God, as an unshakeable wall and defense.”
In Western European examples of the Madonna della Misericordia, various types and numbers of supplicants are shown kneeling for protection under Mary’s mantle. In the Russian icon versions, it is common to show bishops, monks, and others, along with kings. And symbols of authority such as bishop’s staffs and kingly scepters and orbs are placed upon the ground before Mary, showing that they submit to her authority.
The two angels on clouds beside Mary in the above example are the Archangels Michael at left, and Gabriel at right. They hold disks with the Greek letters MP ΘΥ, abbreviating Meter Theou, “Mother of God.” The border saints are at left Venerable Paraskoviya (Paraskeva) and Bishop Sylvester, Pope of Rome; at right Akilina and Venerable Matrona. Jesus blesses from the clouds at top center.
The following, rather out-of-proportion example of the Pokrovitel’nitsa type includes an inscription beside Mary’s wings, a slight variation of Psalm 90:14 (Psalm 91 in KJV numbering).
The psalm reads:
покры́ю и́, я́ко познá и́мя моé.
“I will protect him, because he has known my name.”
But the icon inscription changes it to:
“I will protect them, because they have known my name.”
The “Protect us with the Shelter of Your Wings” type is believed to have entered Russia via Ukrainian engravings in the latter part of the 1600s.
As an aside, some of you may remember the “Singing Nun,” (Sister Smile, Soeur Sourire, Sister Luc-Gabrielle, Jeanine Deckers) from the 1960s, whose life ended in tragedy. Her then-popular song was Dominique, about St. Dominic (not saintly in my view, due to his connection with the persecution of the Cathars). In that paradoxically cheerful and bouncy song about converting the Albigensians (though Dominic was largely a failure at that) one stanza was:
Dominique vit en rêve Les prêcheurs du monde entier Sous le manteau de la Vierge En grand nombre rassemblés
“Dominic saw in a dream The preachers of the entire world Under the mantle of the Virgin In great number assembled.”
Most Americans had not the slightest idea what the song was about. They just liked the voice and the tune. But the “great number assembled” in the story of Dominic’s dream were Dominican monks, who are also known as Les Frères Prêcheurs — “The Preaching Brothers.” In any case, the song contains the same notion of protection and help under the mantle of Mary that we find expressed somewhat differently in various Western paintings of the Madonna della Misericordia and in Tsarist Russian icons of the Pokrovitelnitsa — “The Protectress.”
There is a group of similar icon types utilizing figures set in the framework of a tree or vine or twining foliage, or else the same transformed into a geometric knot. Yet all are different types, and one must learn not to confuse them.
The first type is called in Greek Η Ριζα Του Ιεσσαι — He Riza Tou Iessai — “The Root of Jesse.” It is based on Isaiah 11:1, regarded by Eastern Orthodox as a prediction of the birth of Jesus:
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears.
This relates to the icon in that Jesse (father of King David) is the biblical ancestor of Jesus, and the type depicts a tree growing out of Jesse with other forefathers of Jesus (like a genealogical family tree) depicted in the branches. And of course the focus of the tree is Jesus. He is sometimes shown in maturity, sometimes as a child with his mother Mary. You may recall the basic tree growing out of Jesse as a secondary image in some examples of the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary.
Here is a Russian example of the elaborate type, known there as Древо Иессеево — Drevo Iesseevo — “The Tree of Jesse”:
The second type in this category is called Άνωθεν οι Προφήτες – Anothen hoi Prophetes — “On High the Prophets” in Greek. It is taken from a Marian hymn by Ioannes Koukouzelis, chanted during Orthros at the vesting of the Bishop:
”Άνωθεν οι Προφήται σε προκατήγγειλαν.Στάμνον,ράβδον,πλάκα,κιβωτόν,λυχνίαν, τράπεζαν.Όρος αλατόμητον,χρυσούν θυμιατήριον,πύλην αδιόδευτον και θρόνον Του Βασιλέως προκατήγγειλαν οι Προφήται.Σε προκατήγγειλαν άνωθεν οι Προφήται.”
“Of old [lit. ‘On high’], the prophets earlier proclaimed you, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, the Tablet, the Lampstand, the Ark, the Table, the Mountain Unhewn, the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible, and the Throne of the King. you did the Prophets proclaim of old.”
The painter’s manual of Dionysios of Fourna describes it as having “The Holy Virgin, seated on a throne and carrying the infant Christ…all around the prophets are arranged.” The Patriarch Jacob holds his ladder, Moses has a bush, Aaron a budding staff, Gideon a fleece, David a shrine, Solomon a bed (or temple), Isaiah a spoon (or tongs), Jeremiah an image of the Virgin, Ezekiel a door, Daniel a mountain, Habbakuk a shady mountain, Zechariah a seven-branched lamp.
The Russian equivalent of the “Prophets from On High” type is a variable image generally called Похвала Пресвятыя Богородицы —Pokhvala Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “The Praise of the Most Holy Mother of God.” Here is an example:
Τhe third type is called Η ΑΜΠΕΛΟC — He Ampelos in Greek — “The Vine.” It depicts Jesus sitting near the top of a many-branched grape vine, and around him in the branches are the Twelve Apostles.
It takes its name from John 15:5, and in fact that is the text generally shown in the open Gospels held by Jesus in examples of this type:
Εγω ειμι η αμπελος υμεις τα κληματα ο μενων εν εμοι καγω εν αυτω ουτος φερει καρπον πολυν οτι χωρις εμου ου δυνασθε ποιειν ουδεν
“I am the vine, you the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.”
In Russia the “Ampelos” type is called Лоза Истинная — Loza Istinnaya — “The True Vine,” or “Christ the True Vine.” It is also sometimes called Древо Жизни — Drevo Zhizni — “The Tree of Life.”
One may encounter an uncommon Russian variant of the “True Vine” type, shown here:
Like the usual type, It is based on John 15. And we see a Church Slavic inscription just above Jesus, with sentiments taken from John 15, and beginning Азъ есмь лоза истинная– Az esm loza istinnaya –– “I am the true vine….” It is divided into left and right segments:
On the left side of his head (the “good” side) is:
I [am] the true vine; for without me you can do nothing.
On the right side (the “bad” side) is:
Who does not abide in me is cast out like a branch and is withered; and they are gathered and thrown into the fire and are burned.
But in this “True Vine” variant the emphasis is placed not just on the branches of the vine that “bear fruits,” but also on those that remain barren.
At the top is Paradise, shown as a garden enclosed in walls, and with two gates. At top center are Lord Sabaoth (God the Father), and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Jesus stands at center, with the Gospels in his right hand open to Matthew 11:28, the common “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” text.
There is an inscription proceeding from Jesus’ mouth (but read from the bottom up). It comes from Matthew 25:34-5, and begins:
“Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom [of Heaven] prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and you gave me….”
In his left hand is a sword bearing an inscription taken from Matthew 25:41:
“Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
So Jesus is welcoming those Christians who bear the fruits of good deeds and repentance on his right, but on his left he condemns those who do not bear such fruits, but remain barren. The righteous (with halos) on the fruiting branches (they actually show red fruits) are accompanied by angels, and their entrance into heaven is represented by the figure on the the topmost branch, who is being welcomed into Heaven by an angel at the “right” gate. But the unrighteous (without halos) on the left of Jesus sit on barren and empty branches, which are being hacked off by angels with hatchets. As the branches are cut, the unrighteous, refused entry to Heaven, fall into the flames of Hell, represented as the fiery, open mouth of a great monster.
Here is the relevant portion from John 15 on which the icon is based:
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.2 Every branch in me that bears not fruit he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit.3 Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can you, except you abide in me.5 I am the vine, you are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.6 If a man abides not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done to you.8 Herein is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; so shall you be my disciples.”
And finally, in this category of icons with a tree or vine forming a framework in which several figures are placed, we have the rather uncommon Russian icon type favored by Old Believers, Союз любви — Soiuz Liubvi — the “Union of Love.” It depicts Jesus in the center (sometimes the “Blessed Silence,” or sometimes the Crucifixion, sometimes a simple Deisis), of a diamond shape formed by part of a complex knot, with twelve Apostles in the other segments of it. In the four segments outside the diamond, the Four Evangelists are depicted in symbolic form: Matthew as a winged man, Mark as an eagle, John as a winged lion, and Luke as a winged ox. The type also relates to John 15 through the portions dealing with mutual love. While some versions use the knot as the framework, other examples replace it with twining vegetation.
The type name is found in the Ode 5 Irmos from Great Thursday, the Footwashing Ceremony:
Союзом любве связуеми апостоли Владычествующему всеми себе Христу возложше красны ноги очищаху благовествующе мир/
‘United with the bonds of love, the Apostles offered themselves to Christ the Master of all things; when their beautiful feet had been washed clean they bring good tidings of peace to all.’
This does not begin to exhaust icon types featuring trees or vines, but these are the main types that utilize multiple figures in a tree, vine, or geometric configuration. A simpler vine-related type is the Eucharistic icon particularly popular in Romania, called Iisus Hristos – Viţa de vie — “Jesus Christ the Grapevine,” also known as the “Mystic Winepress.” It depicts Jesus seated, and out of his side grows a vine bearing clusters of grapes. It grows over a cross, and arches down to where his hands squeeze a bunch of grapes into a chalice. In more elaborate versions, the chalice is held by an angel. This is of course a Eucharistic icon. Romanian examples are often reverse-painted on glass — typical of Romanian folk icons — and the glass is set into a simple wooden frame. Such icons are called icoane pe sticla — “icons on glass.”
Here is a more elaborate but still folkish version on wood:
This type is generally considered to represent lines from a prayer at the Cherubic Hymn in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom:
For you are the One who offers and the One who is offered, the One who receives and the One who is given, O Christ our God…”
There is a group of variable icons with variable titles, all related, more or less, by subject matter or title. The name varies depending on which elements are included or emphasized.
There are, for example, icons called (with some variation) Церковь Христова —Tserkov’ Khristova — “The Church of Christ,” but they may also be called Апостольская проповедь — Apostol’skaya Propoved’ — “The Apostolic Preaching.” (or “Preaching of the Apostles). Here is an example:
It is easy to recognize Jesus in the center. The segments of the “pie” surrounding Jesus show both scenes from the preaching of each apostle (in the outer portion) and the “suffering” or martyrdom or death of each apostle in the inner portion. The scenes outside the “pie” circle vary from image to image. In this example we see an elaborate Deisis centered on the New Testament Trinity at the top, with the Crucifixion of Jesus below it, and a gathering of clerics at the base of the icon.
One also finds icons that omit the scenes of the Apostles preaching, showing only their deaths. The title for such icons is usually some variation on “Image of the Suffering (Страдание —Stradanie) of the Holy Apostles.” Here is an example:
Here the central figure of the standing Christ in the “Apostolic Preaching” is replaced by the Crucifixion of Jesus (a secondary image in the first example), and the deaths of the Apostles are shown in circles around the periphery, instead of in the “pie” form one sometimes finds.
Now we have seen that the “Apostolic Preaching” type can shade off into a “Suffering of the Apostles” type simply by removing the “preaching” images, leaving only the “death” scenes. But we have also seen that an alternate title for the “Apostolic Preaching” type is “The Church of Christ.” That leads us to a quite different icon type that also represents the Church, and also involves persecution (whether real or imaginary). Here is an example:
In Russia, such a type is generally loosely called Корабль Веры — Korabl’ Verui — “The Ship of Faith,” The example shown bears the title inscription Образ Гонения на Церковь Божию — Obraz Goneniya na Tserkov’ Bozhiiu — “Image of the Persecution of the Church of God.”
Here is a later variation on the same type in print form, with an inscription in both in Greek and Slavic identifying it as the “Mystic Image of Our Holy Church,” and saying that though attacked by torturers and heretics, it is not overcome.
At the head of the ship is Jesus, and with him are Mary, the Apostles, and “Holy Fathers.” The Holy Spirit as a dove is shown in a cloud above the mast. The ship bears the title “He Hagia Orthodoxos Ekklesia” in Greek, Svyataya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov’ in Slavic — “The Holy Orthodox Church.” The attackers on shore are such figures as the Antichrist, a dragon called the New Age, the Roman Emperor Julian “The Apostate,” the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, the Pope of Rome, etc.
None of these types are common, but nonetheless a student of icons should be able to recognize them.