Symbols of grapevine and grape on medieval tombstone monuments – stećci, under which our ancestors from medieval period were buried in areas of Zachlumia, Bosnia, Rascia, Dalmatia and Montenegro are some of the most often decorative motifs on these monuments.
With several exemptions, symbol of grape is most often depicted as leaving volute (lat. volutum-spiral) of a double spiral. Volute are used in architecture during antique period – Greek pillars, Middle Age – in religious and secular architecture, and is used still today. On the right side of Nišava river, where late antique necropolis in Jagodin-mali is situated, in 1953 an early-byzantine tomb was found with walls depicting symbols of heaven – grapevine, birds and grapes. It is presumed that tomb originates from a period between middle IV and middle V century.
Byzantine capitol (lat. caput-head, the highest upper part of a pillar) with volutes and a cross.
Composition of a cross linked with grapevine is in the foundation of Christian iconography. It come from words Christ said to the apostles: “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener”. (John 15:1)
This sentence from the Gospel by John, once interpreted, says: I am the true vine, that is, the grapevine no one and nothing can damage, destroy, kill or corrode. He is immortal and eternal because He himself is all divine immortality and eternity. He, the Theanthropos, is all of that through his deity. Although man, by his divinity he is completely within Father and the Holy Trinity. That’s the reason he says for his Father: “and my Father is the gardener.”
Theanthropic deed of world salvation is work of not only the Son of God, Theanthropos Jesus, but his God the Father. It is the endeavor of the entire Holy Trinity with the Son being its most direct mediator amongst humans, because he is the Son of Man as well.
Priestly epitrachelion with grapevine.
Depictions similar to those found on stećci can be often found on other Christian tombstone monuments, closest one being the motif found on the tomb of Yaroslav the Wise from XI century in Kiev. Similar composition can be seen on mosaic in apse of the San Clemente basilica in Rome. In both cases, cross is placed between volutes of double spiral. Depictions of grapevine and grapes can be found in Serbian Orthodox churches, both old ones and new.
Monastery of St. Basil of Ostrog, Bijeljina.
Given that the double spiral was linked with function of birth during the medieval period, its depiction with the cross in these circumstances is not surprising. On gravestones, the cross, double spiral and grapes are there to attest to union of the deceased with Christ through the vine of Eucharist and his inevitable rebirth in the Heaven.
Perućac, Bajna Bašta, Serbia
Prevalence of grape motifs on stećci can be linked with works of either one artisan or one school of stonecutting. This motif appears in area from Stolac to Kalinovik and Dobro Polje in Bosnia, and continues further on towards Zvornik and upper stream of Drina.
“Nuptial graveyard” Buložani (Kozluk near Zvornik)
It is easy to notice these are areas which belonged, in medieval period, to Serbian Orthodox church, especially in eastern Herzegovina, or areas containing centers of Serbian literacy, art and spirituality (Podrinje and Herzegovina). Necropolis with possibly the largest number of stećci decorated with grapes motif is the graveyard Radimlji near Stolac. This is a family cemetery of a Serbian Orthodox noble family of Hrabren-Miloradović who were, among other things, ktetors of Žitomislić monastery. We can presume, on this basis, that artisans decorating tombstones in these areas found their inspiration in Orthodox art of Serbian medieval monasteries and churches (Žitomislić, Tvrdoš, Dobrun, Mileševa, churches of Hrabren-Miloradović near Stolac and similar).
Ljubljenica near Stolac
Radimlja near Stolac
Inditija – cover for the Honorable table
In the end we left several more quotes from Gospel by John within which meaning of grapevine and grape is presented:
“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” (15:2)
“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.”(15:4)
“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.”(15:5)
“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.”(15:6)
Source: Marian Wenzel, “Ornamental motifs on tombstones from medieval Bosnia and surrounding regions, Sarajevo, 1965;
Saint Sava – Orthodox Christianity of Serbian style and experience; Monuments of culture in Serbia; Orthodox boutique
Prepared by: Boris Radaković
Translate: Ljubisa Malenica