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Icons of the Great Feasts: Palm Sunday

April 1st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our series on icons of the Great Feasts of the Church Year

Previously here

(Click on picture for a larger image.)

Icon of “The Entry Into Jerusalem” by Rolland Luke Dingman

The depiction of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem entered the Christian repertoire of images toward the end of the 3rd century but blossomed in popularity following the Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313. It is always interesting to try and determine why a story or symbol began to appear in Christian art when it did. All through the 20th century historians assumed that the scene had imperial overtones as the depiction seemed to be copied from scenes of imperial adventus representations, scenes in which an emperor triumphantly entered a city to remind the inhabitants that the city belonged to him. Christ’s Entry image was thought to bestow religious legitimacy on imperial power by associating the Entry scene with the adventus images. It supposedly worked in reverse as well: Christ took on an imperial aura. We now know that just the opposite was true. The scene was an anti-imperial image.1

Roman Emperor’s Adventus

The message is in the details. There is the donkey, a humble beast of burden, which is in contrast to the proud imperial chariot of the emperor2. Christ wears the garb of a philosopher and holds a scroll which indicate a person who deals in higher, spiritual truths; the emperor wears the boots and short tunic of a warrior emperor who deals in earthly blood and guts. Christ is accompanied by his apostles who also wear philosophers’ clothing; the emperor is escorted by contingents of armed infantry and cavalry. Crowds of people wildly greet Christ, spreading cloaks on the ground before him and waving palms. There are no crowds greeting the emperor. Christ greets the people with a blessing; the emperor stares straight ahead, not condescending to acknowledge anyone or anything. The message is clear: Christ’s power is so far above earthly power that no impressive display is necessary. Even after earthly power has its way with Christ on Good Friday he will triumphantly rise from the grave on Easter Sunday. The crucified and risen Lord is the hope of persecuted Christians.

The Entry scene was a hopeful image and became popular at the height of the worst persecution Christians had suffered –just before Christianity was legalized. Following legalization the scene celebrated the victory that had been hoped for. The interpretation remains the same even today.

This is the iconic image for Palm Sunday (now called Passion Sunday) or, The Feast of the Entry Into Jerusalem as it is known in the Eastern Church. The icon exudes a festive quality expressive of the character of the day itself which contrasts with the stern and reflective mood of Lent.3 The icon and feast look forward to the joy of Easter. Actually the cause of this jubilant public celebration was the raising of Lazarus recounted in the Gospel read out the Sunday before Palm Sunday.4 Word had spread among the citizens of Jerusalem concerning the miracle and…

“…much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him.” (John 11:12, 13)

The palm branch was a symbol of joyful celebrating and Jews used them in welcoming very important persons. The branches, in Middle Eastern cultures, were also a symbol of courage and valor and so were presented as a reward to conquerors. Christ is the Conqueror of Death.

Usually, children play a large role in the Entry icons.5 There is often one sitting in a palm tree which stands in, or bends over, the center of the composition. More often than not, it is children and not adults who spread cloaks on the ground before the donkey. Still other children wave palms with the adults. The Gospel writers do not mention children although we can assume children would have been part of the crowd. The Evangelist Matthew, however, mentions children welcoming the Lord after His entry, when He drove the traders out of the Temple and cured the sick. Their role 6 may be indicated by Christ’s words, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou perfected praise” (Ps. 8:3). (Also, [Mark 10:15] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.) The young children saw Jesus simply as a King and celebrated him as such with no thought of gain or earthly power. The adults on the other hand were expecting an earthly power –a conqueror over their enemy, Rome. The children were celebrating the Conqueror of Death –that had been His accomplishment. In the Bible (4 Kings 9:13), spreading garments is done for an anointed king and since Christ is the Anointed One whose kingdom is not of this world the garments are spread before Him by children instead of by adults.

So, the Entry depicts the installation of the King of Glory in His Kingdom, the blessed Kingdom of God -the heavenly Jerusalem. His installation will take place as a result of His voluntary passion and death in the earthly Jerusalem.7

John Cassian (ca. 365-435) interpreted the scene or story on four levels.8 First, as a literal historic account of Christ’s entry into the Jewish capital, acclaimed as king, a few days before his execution. Second, allegorically or typologically, Jerusalem stands for the Church which Christ established and with which he reunites during every liturgy. Third, in a moral or topological interpretation the city stands for the individual soul who receives Christ in a spiritual way. Fourth, analogically, Jerusalem symbolizes the ‘New Jerusalem’ the heavenly Jerusalem that will come down from heaven and where the kingdom of God will blossom in fullness.

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Endnotes

1 “The Clash of Gods”, Thomas F. Mathews, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003) Chapter 2, “The Chariot and the Donkey”

2 Christ rides straddling the horse in images created in the Western Roman Empire; Eastern images normally depict Him side-saddled.

3 “The Meaning of Icons”, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Press, 1989) 176

4 Ouspensky 176

5 Ouspensky 178

6 Ouspensky 178

7 Ouspensky 178

8 “The Mystical language of Icons, Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, William B, Eerdmans Publishing Company) 73

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Picture Source: http://www.lukedingman.com/icons3.htm

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Book Suggestions

The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes

The Meaning of Icons, Vladimir Lossky & Leonid Ouspensky

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