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 (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 popular in Romania and called Iisus Hristos – Viţa-de-vie — “Jesus Christ the Grapevine,” also known as the “Mystic Winepress,” but I will save that for another day and another discussion.