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In the centre a grape vine spreads its branches on either side creating a symmetrical composition. In the middle is a half-length depiction of Christ gazing directly at the viewer with both arms raised in blessing. In his lap an open gospel-book. On either side of Christ's head, contained within stylised curving branches, we see the Virgin and John the Baptist in the Deesis position. The other branches contain half-length depictions of the 12 apostles: on the left hand side, from top to bottom: Peter, John the Theologian, Mark, Andrew, Simon, and Thomas. On the left: Paul, Matthew, Luke, Bartholomew, James and Philip. The four evangelists and St Paul hold gospel books, while the other apostles hold scrolls.
The source of this rare iconography is a passage in the Gospel of John XV, from which a quotation is inscribed on the book that Christ holds in his lap:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing...
The text can be understood as a mystical image of the relationship between Christ and the Church, as Apostolos Mantas highlights: 'the vine has been interpreted as a symbol of the church and of the life-giving force that binds it together', it can also be seen as symbolically associated with the 'Incarnation of the Word, and with Holy Communion, while a strong soteriological and eschatological meaning has also been attributed to it.'
The iconography is not a classic theme, but has some clear connections with earlier images. For example, a 12th century apse mosaic in St Clements, Rome, also derives from John XV; here a crucifixion, with the Virgin and John on either side, is in the centre, while the vine is more geometrically represented in patterns of spirals (see fig. a).
A clearer iconographic connection is the Tree of Jesse icon, which was developed in the early 15th century and based on Isaiah XI:I, a text that is interpreted by Christian theologians as prophesying the Incarnation of Christ (see fig. b); and thus the icon has the Virgin and Child in the centre of the tree, while in the branches are half-length depictions of Old Testament prophets, rather than the apostles. As we can see, the basic composition clearly anticipates that of the 'True Vine'.
The three earliest icons of the True Vine in the form of our version have all been attributed to Angelos Akotantos, the great 15th century icon-painter based in Crete (see fig's c, d, and e). Scholars believe that Angelos created the True Vine iconography during the first half of the 15th century.
Icon painters from Constantinople had settled in Crete (mainly Candia) from the early 14th century, and thus helped shape Cretan painting in this period up until the late 15th century, when Western influences became notably apparent. Angelos is known to have worked in Crete in the second quarter of the 15th century and as Angelos scholar Maria Vassilaki points out, his work 'relies heavily on the art produced in Candia in the first quarter of that century'. Vassilaki then suggests that Angelos learned 'the art of painting presumably from the Constantinopolitan painters in Candia', and doesn't rule out the possibility that he may have directly experienced the great monuments of Constantinople, such as the Chora monastery.  As a result, his work occupies a liminal space between the classical Byzantine style and the Cretan school.
Manolis Borboudakis draws attention to a contemporary theological debate which may have inspired the theme of the iconography: 'Christ the Vine by Angelos is not a traditional Byzantine iconography. Its creation by Angelos coincides with the period before and after the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1445), in which there were heated theological debates concerning the Union of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Churches.' Borboudakis then notes references in the iconography relating to these issues: 'The iconography speaks for one Church (vine) founded by Christ and propagated by the Apostles (branches). Peter and Paul, the two leaders of the Eastern and Western Churches, are set in prominent positions (branches that issue from a common root, united under Christ). Thus, the iconography, as a whole and in the details, has pro-Unionist theological overtones.'
In 1995 Sotheby's attributed this icon to 'Angelos or his circle'. While there are strong similarities, our example also exhibits notable dissimilarities with the above examples that need to be taken into account. For a start, a Deesis is included in our version, emphasising the soteriological and eucharistic themes more clearly, while Peter and Paul are not in the 'prominent positions' in which Angelos placed them. In terms of technique, we also notice how the branches in the Angelos' versions have not been defined beyond the main trunk, whereas in our version each branch is boldly delineated. Finally, the size of our example is smaller, suggesting that it was created for a private client, rather than for a large church. These developments from Angelos' original iconography suggest that the icon was painted slightly later. But the high quality of our version, especially the depictions of the miniatures, indicate that the artist was a master painter. It is likely, therefore, that it was painted by Angelos' student Andreas Ritzos, as we shall now attempt to demonstrate.
Comparing Angelos with Ritzos, Myrtali Acheimastou-Potamianou writes: 'Like Angelos in the first half of the 15th century, Andreas Ritzos dominated the second half of the century as the most important painter in Candia and, through the effect of his work on later painters, as the first major representative of the Cretan School after the Fall of Constantinople. Son of the mariner and goldsmith Nikolaos Ritzos, and father of a line of painters, Andreas practised his art in Iraklion for over forty years...He kept a workshop in the Cretan capital, with three fellow painters and his sons, Nikolaos and Thomas.... Andreas Ritzos was a pupil of Angelos, at least in the sense of the affinity of models and works.' Vassilaki also believes that Ritzos inherited Angelos' designs (disegni), and was part of Angelos' workshop.
If we look at the face of Christ in our example and in an icon of Christ Enthroned by Ritzos (fig. f), we notice a comparable aesthetic and use of light. This painterly style derives from icons created in Crete in the early 15th century (for example, see fig. g). Christ's face is notably softer here than in the earlier Byzantine types that showed him with a more severe countenance.
Similarities can also be found between the miniature of John the Theologian in our icon and other depictions of the saint by Ritzos (see figs. h and i).
While the decoratively painted branches of the vine in our icon - in comparison to Angelos' more sketchy approach - seem somewhat analogous (in terms of rhythm and aesthetic) to the depictions of floral patterns in Ritzos' icon in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, with the monogram JHS (see fig. J).
The strong similarities, therefore, with Angelos' versions, and the slight, but notable changes in our version, strongly suggest that the painter was closely connected with Angelos. The idea that Ritzos was part of the Angelos workshop, that he had Angelos' disegni, and the stylistic comparisons between our icon and other works attributed to Ritzos, provides justifiable evidence that the 'most illustrious Cretan painter' of the period produced this rare and masterly icon.