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David Thurman in his book, "From Vines to Wines in Classical Rome" writes about a very common first century practice (testified by Pliny and Columella) of establishing vineyards with a post and a single cross bar, from 4 to 7 feet high, with (among other options) reeds acting as wires connecting vine branches with the props (posts) for a trellis system.

This understanding from Pliny & Columella in the first century, of how a typical trellis system was set up, goes against the conventional understanding of vineyard management in Bible times. For example, John Dominic Crossan depicts sprawling grape vines on the ground in his, "Interpretive painting of first century Nazareth. The view from the ridge." (scroll down to the 5th picture) - Illustration from Crossan and Reed, Excavating Jesus (2003).

It occurred to me that a high wooden prop (post) with a cross bar would look very much like a cross with a grape vine draped over it, especially if sheep or other animals were to eat the leaves below.

The significance is that, if Jesus were walking past vineyards speaking about the vine and branches, it would be a very cruciformish experience. That is to say, it would have an added existential impact of being both Christ centered and cross focused - e.g. believers connect with Christ on the cross to bear spiritual fruit.

The Gospel of John was composed in Ephesus and universally ascribed by the custodians of the early canon to John the son of Zebedee - an eyewitness of Jesus. Ephesus was an area known for grape growing. When Anthony entered the city of Ephesus, Plutarch says, “women arrayed like Bacchanals, and men and boys like Satyrs and Pans led the way before him and the city was full of ivy and thyruswands and harps and pipes and flutes, the people hailing him as Dionysus, giver of Joy and Beneficent.” Some have argued that both Osiris and Dionysus were hung on trees and crosses. If so, the praeparatio evangelica impact of John 15 in relationship to a crucifixion, would be an extraordinary illustration for the initial readers of the Gospel - who were coming from a Dionysian background.

Here is an example of a modern trellis system in Baja Mexico that looks like a cross. It would be similar to those in Bible times. However, in Bible times, the grape vines would have been higher up on the trellis wires (reeds in this case). They would appear draped around the cross bar post like linens on a cross during Holy Week.

What are the earliest artistic examples of grape vines depicted on a cross in church history?

A modern Easter clip art example can be found here.

Are there other examples of a modern trellis system post looking like a cross, besides the one in Baja Mexico?

Postscript: *Sheep have been used by "wine shepherds" to do leaf thinning, eating suckers off the vines, fertilizing and eating cover crops, etc. It is highly likely that they were used in Bible times for crop management. Therefore Crossan's view of ground sprawling vines is a dubious portrayal of viticulture in Nazareth. Jesus growing up in Nazareth, where a first century wine press has been found, would likely have been familiar with raising sheep in a vineyard context. The picture below shows sheep in a vineyard. Although pigs, not being kosher, would not have been raised by Jesus! Also, goats are too aggressive with the vines and so the sheep would need to be separated from them. *

enter image description here

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Your question reminds me distinctly of the opening chapter of G.K. Chesteron's "The Ball and the Cross" where Michael (possibly St. Michael, not sure) tells a story about an atheist who see crosses everywhere (bedposts and wants to break them all up.


Interestingly enough, GKC did write in the end of an essay on something very similar to "Build Back Better" but 100 years earlier:

nothing could be better, for instance, than his opening remarks about the " trellis," or fixed framework of devoted men, whose discipline supports the general social growth. But I like to have a fixed framework of ideas as well as of idealists; and I have found no way of making such trellises except in the pattern of the cross.

The Open Conspiracy - GK's Weekly - 6/2/1928

So there's sort of an answer. G.K. Chesterton wholeheartedly agrees with you that trellises (if done right) look like crosses.

The imagery of "I am the vine, and you are the branches" is the motif I think the artist is trying to conjure up in that clip-art.

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  • Possibly this is an off-topic answer, but if the earliest acknowledgement that a trellis is very much like a cross can be considered a 1928 essay, than that's a very interesting observation Mr. Chesterton made indeed.
    – Peter Turner
    Nov 18, 2021 at 21:55
  • Thanks for sharing that observation. Until I noticed what Pliny and Columella wrote, I thought vines in Bible times were head pruned with branches just laying on the ground - e.g. like Crossan's picture of Nazareth. Bob Dylan's "Slow Train Coming" album depicts a hammer that looks like a cross. There is a lot of symbolism that can be found in life that can remind one of a cross. I often see telephone poles that look like crosses.
    – Jess
    Nov 18, 2021 at 22:36
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Can a novel interpretation of John 15 be supported by art in church history?

I believe it is quite possible.

The Vine and the Branches

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.

Vines and Cross religious art can take several forms and historical traditions within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

I would like to touch base on at least four points of interest here:

  • Vineyards in general
  • Grapevine cross
  • Blessing of Crosses Placed in Fields and Vineyards
  • Christ in the winepress

Growing grapes has been done for a millennium. We known Noah grew grapes and even got drunk on the wine he produced.

Grapes can either be grown close to the ground or at a more elevated level in order to avoid bending over and making it easier on the back. Climate plays a big part in deciding which techniques could possibly be better. Both are traditional grape growing techniques, but the one described by Pliny and Columella is by far the most common.

At the end of the growing season and after the grape harvest, the branches are all cut off back to the main branches, usually to the left and right, thus forming a type of tau cross. Thus we are able to see a symbolic meaning in Our Lord’s words: ”If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

This can be somewhat understood by contemplating the image below

Wine Country Vineyard, Southern California

The trellis was originally intended to support vine stock – which gives its name: lat Trichila (greenery bower). Though it is unknown when and where the trellis was invented, the trellis has been mentioned in literature and botanical works throughout history. Pliny the Younger, in the first and second centuries, wrote about trellises in some of his letters about gardens.

The Grapevine Cross has been a Gregorian tradition since the 4th century.

The grapevine cross, also known as the Georgian cross or Saint Nino's cross, is a major symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church and dates from the 4th century AD, when Christianity became the official religion in the kingdom of Iberia (Kartli).

The grapevine cross is recognizable by the slight drooping of its horizontal arms. Traditional accounts credit Saint Nino, a Cappadocian woman who preached Christianity in Iberia (corresponding to modern southern and eastern Georgia, northeastern Turkey) early in the 4th century, with this unusual shape of cross. The legend has it that she received the grapevine cross from the Virgin Mary (or, alternatively, she created it herself on the way to Mtskheta) and secured it by entwining with her own hair. Nino came with this cross on her mission to Georgia. However, the familiar representation of the cross, with its peculiar drooping arms, did not appear until the early modern era.

According to traditional accounts, the cross of St. Nino was kept at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta until 541. During the Persian invasions it was taken to Armenia and stayed there until David IV of Georgia recovered the Armenian city of Ani from the Muslims in 1124, and brought the cross to Mtskheta. King Vakhtang III of Georgia (1303–1307) enshrined the cross in a special envelope, decorated with the scenes from St. Nino's life. During the 1720s, when Georgia was subjected to Persian and Ottoman invasions, the cross was taken to safer areas, to Ananuri in highland Georgia. From there, the Georgian bishop Timothy brought the cross to the émigré Georgian prince Bakar, residing in Moscow and then in Lyskovo. The Georgian king Erekle II tried to recover the relic for Georgia from Bakar's family, to no avail. In 1801, Bakar's grandson Georgy presented the cross to the Russian tsar Alexander I, who returned it to Georgia in 1802 on the occasion of Georgia's incorporation within the Russian Empire. Since then, the cross has been preserved in the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The grapevine cross at Tbilisi Sioni Cathedra

Saint Nino's Cross - The Grapevine Cross

Grapes and/or grapevines on Crosses is not overly common, but do exist historically. There is just not enough research done in this domain of research to know when are the earliest artistic examples of grape vines depicted on a cross in church history?

They are an interesting symbolism within the context of a funerary symbol as it hints at resurrection after Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Wine, which comes from the grape, has always traditionally been seen as representing the blood of Christ and this is particularly symbolic during the service of Holy Communion within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. We can recall that during the Last Supper, Christ gave wine to his disciples and told them to drink it in remembrance of him. Thus believed to be transubstantiated into the Blood of Christ.

Here are some examples of Crosses depicted in stone with grapes and vines from a cemetery dating back to the mid 1800s.

The Catholic Church has had an ancient tradition of erecting Crosses placed in front of vineyards of fields. Back in the day (prior to 1970), there was a liturgical tradition which was interwoven in the agrarian life. There existed an old custom on May 3 (formerly the Feast of Finding the True Cross) was to place crosses in the vineyards, fields or gardens which were blessed on this day (sometimes transferred to the following Sunday).

Here follows the Blessing of Crosses Placed in Fields and Vineyards in Latin from the Riuale Romanum of the Extraordinary Form of the Catholic liturgy (Page 317):

Benedictio Crucium in agris, vineis, etc., plantandarum quæ fit in Festo Inventionis S. Crucis vel Dominica proxima

(Approbata a S.R.C. die 10 Febr. 1888)

V. Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómine.

R. Qui fecit cælum et terram.

V. Dóminus vobíscum.

R. Et cum spíritu tuo.

Orémus.

Oratio Omnípotens sempitérne Deus, Pater totíus consolatiónis et pietátis, per Unigéniti Fílii tui Dómini nostri Jesu Christi acerbíssime Passiónis méritum, quam pro nobis peccatóribus in ligno Crucis sustinére dignátus est: béne + dic has Cruces, quas tui fidéles in hortis, víneis, agris, aliísve locis plantándas áfferunt, ut a prǽdiis quibus defíxæ fúerint, fragor absit grándinum, procélla túrbinum, ímpetus tempestátum, et omnis infestátio inimíci: quátenus eórum fructus ad maturitátem perdúcti, in tui nóminis honórem colligántur a sperántibus in virtúte sanctæ Crucis ejúsdem Fílii tui, Dómini nostri Jesu Christi, Qui tecum vivit et regnat in sǽcula sæculórum.

R. Amen.

Et aspergantur aqua benedicta.

Old Cross in the Vineyard, France

Old Cross in the Vineyard, France

Finally a last word on Christ in the winepress as depicted in art.

Christ in the winepress or the mystical winepress is a motif in Christian iconography showing Christ standing in a winepress, where Christ himself becomes the grapes in the press. It derives from the interpretation by Augustine and other early theologians of a group of passages in the Bible and is found as a visual image in Christian art between about 1100 and the 18th century, as well as in religious literature of many kinds. The image in art underwent a number of changes of emphasis, while remaining fairly consistent in its basic visual content, and was one of the relatively few medieval metaphorical or allegorical devotional images to maintain a foothold in Protestant iconography after the Reformation.

The image was first used c. 1108 as a typological prefiguration of the crucifixion of Jesus and appears as a paired subordinate image for a Crucifixion, in a painted ceiling in the "small monastery" ("Klein-Comburg", as opposed to the main one) at Comburg. Here Isaiah stands just outside the winepress with a banderole; Christ stands erect, in front of the press's heavy beam, which is level with his waist. In another example, a miniature from Hildesheim c. 1160-80, there is no mechanical press and Christ just treads in a small vat which is, for once, circular. He is flanked by figures with banderoles, perhaps Isaiah and John the Evangelist. Christ's banderole has part of Isaiah 63:3, and those of the flanking figures Genesis 49:11 and Numbers 13:18.3 The monastic context of the Comburg example is typical of these early examples, and at this period only monasteries and wealthy lords were likely to have such expensive equipment as a large screw press;5 often they were made available to smaller growers for a share of the juice. The Comburg area in Baden-Württemberg continues to have vineyards as a major element of its agriculture.

From around 1400 the conception of the figure changed, and the Christ figure became a Man of Sorrows, with the weight of the press bearing down on him, often shown as a bent figure as in a depiction of Christ Carrying the Cross. He usually wears only a cloth round his waist, and blood from his wounds may be shown falling to join the grape juice in the treading-floor. In many examples the beam has a cross-member, spelling out the identification of beam and cross, or Christ carries a cross on his back under the beam. The image has become focused on the Eucharist and also part of the suite of late-medieval andachtsbilder imagery emphasizing the sufferings of Christ.

As a eucharistic image, it had a counterpart in the much rarer image, essentially restricted to German-speaking lands, of the Hostienmühle or "host-mill", where a grain mill turns out hosts for the Eucharist. In winepress images the juice now often flows into a chalice, though it may also flow into a bucket. Angels, farm-workers or sometimes a Lamb of God (apparently drinking it) may attend to its collection. A third "mechanized allegory" completes the group of "these strange pictorial inventions in which theology and technology celebrate their unlikely marriage" and depict Eucharistic themes. This is the fountain, which may be shown running with the blood of Christ; a metaphor more in line with the daily life of urban people.

God the Father turning the press and the Lamb of God at the chalice. Prayer book of 1515-1520

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    That’s a nice well researched response! 👍
    – Jess
    Nov 19, 2021 at 5:35

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