Palm Sunday, Then & Now

PALM SUNDAY COMMEMORATES JESUS’ ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM and marks the beginning of Passion Week. It observes the triumphal prelude—so misleading—to bloody days ahead, a time of betrayal, torture, and death. While portrayals of crucifixions continued well into the 20th century, Palm Sunday has largely been ignored by all but a few contemporary artists. Jacob Lawrence is one of the few. He framed the gospel story in terms of a black pastor greeting his flock, with particular tenderness toward the children:


Jacob Lawrence, "Palm Sunday," (1956)


Romare Beardon, too, phrased the event in terms of the black community. His hieratic processional scene memorializes the core of the gospel story. Its celebratory train of worshippers reenact the gospel acccount and, at the same time, reference the long history of Palm Sunday processions.  These persisted in black churches while they waned elsewhere.


Romare Beardon, "Palm Sunday" (1967-68)

Lawrence and Beardon created those images half a century ago. At the same time, Barnett Newman was brandishing his black and white series Stations of the Cross. The paintings, worked between 1956-66, tell of nothing beyond the artist’s own pretensions to high seriousness. By now, there exists little of any consequence that does more than usurp the words Palm Sunday, with its solemn resonances, and apply it, willy nilly, to the artist’s signature shtick. That brings us to Anselm Kiefer, all bombast and scorched earth. His Palm Sunday, installed in Tate Modern,  is a monumental pretext for doing what he is accustomed to doing: burning straw. The overblown installation might have made sense for Ash Wednesday, but that would have signified a penitential spirit and, perhaps, required a certain modesty of statement. Neither penance nor compunction in regard to self-display have even less currency in the art world than in the culture at large. Unless you are sorry for being a white, Western, heterosexual male, mortification is a concept far off the radar screen. We might chastise ourselves for our carbon footprint but not for our arrogances, hypocrasies, or ill-considered dogmas. So, no, Ash Wednesday does not apply. [Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, declared Palm Sunday the masterwork that made Kiefer “the peer of Cy Twombly.” A thin accolade in my book, but there you have it.]


Anself Kiefer, "Palm Sunday," 2006


Christianity, as John Drury noted in Painting the Word, is another country. Earlier ages had an easier time with Palm Sunday. Mundane existence was saturated—shot through—with intimations of the divine, of the sacred. The imaginative powers of artists were fed, not constrained, by events deemed significant in more than political or wordly terms.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, "Entry into Jerusalem," (13th C.)

One characteristic of older representations of Palm Sunday, from Romanesque to Florentine depictions, is the recurring figure of a member of the crowd laying his own garment on the ground to carpet Jesus’ approach. You see it above in the Duccio, and here in a somewhat earlier fresco:

It appears again in Giotto:

Giotto, "Entrance Into Jerusalem," (c. 1305)

Again, in a 12th century Romanesque altar panel:

Altar frontal, St. Vincent d'Espinelves, Cataluna

It is familiar in early Christian art. Here, it is one narrative detail within an ivory frieze on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, a Roman Christian who died circa 359. He was buried in the Grotte Nuove, a catacomb close to the tomb of St. Peter:

A portion of the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

In the late 15th century, Isabella of Spain’s breviary followed the ancient iconography:

Illustration from the Isabella Brieviary

The image of the cloak repeats throughout Western art from 15th century Armenia:

Karapet of Altamar (c. 1433), Matenadaran Library, Yerevan


to 17th century Flanders, when Peter Paul Rubens put his baroque, Counter-Reformation hand to it:

Rubens, "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem" (1632)

The motif survived into 17th century France:

Charles Le Brun, "Entry Into Jerusalem"

And on into the 19th century, but just barely:

Wall painting by Hippolyte Flandrin, early 19th C.

Styles changed over time and location, but the cloak remained a constant for its symbolic value. It was, from its beginnings, a dual emblem. On the most conspicuous level, it is an explicit display of public obeisance before a revered individual. To lay one’s personal garments in the dust of the road is an act of humility as well as homage.  But then as now, the popular mood is fickle. Soon, the same townspeople who strew clothes and pond fronds would cry “Release to us Barrabas!” and “Let him be crucified!”

The ancient Palm Sunday iconography did more than retell a gospel story. It conveyed to believers a caution against trusting the applause of the world. That is not a warning congenial to a culture that has seized on celebrity in the absence of saints. In sum, the gesture of spreading garments on the ground serves two ends. It affirms the obligations of honor to Jesus of Nazareth. And, on a more worldly metaphoric level, it offers a caveat against trust in the applause of crowds. The richness of the ancient motif is largely lost to contemporary viewers and artists alike.

© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey