The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Vine in Art and Symbolism

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VINE IN ART AND SYMBOLISM. The grape vine (vitis vinifera) figures frequently as a symbol from far distant times. In the Greek mythology Dionysius (and with the Romans Bacchus) was god of the vintage and, therefore, a grape vine with bunches of the fruit are among their attributes. Their attendants on the Bacchanalian festivals — the Bacchanals — hence had the vine as an attribute, together with the thyrsus, the latter often entwined with vine branches. For the same reason the Greek wine-cup (cantharos) is commonly decorated with the vine and grapes; wine, of course, being drunk as a libation to the god. In Christian iconography the vine also frequently enters. It is several times mentioned in the New Testament. We have the parable of the kingdom of heaven likened to the father starting to engage laborers for his vineyard. The vine is used as symbol of Christ based on his own statement, “I am the vine.” In that sense a vine is placed as sole symbol on the tomb of the sister of Constantine, the Empress Constantia, and elsewhere. In Byzantine art the vine and grapes figure in early mosaics and on the throne of Maximien at Ravenna it is used as a decoration. The vine as symbol of the chosen people is employed several times in the Old Testament. The vine and wheat-ear have been frequently used as symbol of the blood and flesh of Christ, hence figuring as symbols (bread and wine) of the Eucharist and are found depicted on ostensories. Often the symbolic vine laden with grapes is found in ecclesiastical decorations with animals biting at the grapes. At times the vine is used as symbol of temporal blessing. In decorative art, while the vine is not as favored as many other motifs it is frequently found in works of the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance we find the vine as ornament on friezes, pilasters, etc. Its supple branches, the beauty of the leaf and the artistic formation of the bunch of grapes, all tend to make the plant one whose characteristics we would expect to find more favor in the modern art world, more especially as the grape bunch is so prolifically used in the decorative arts.

Clement W. Coumbe.