Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
Updated: Sep 17
Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice, Italy
The Icon of the Triumphal Entry presents Christ and his apostles as he enters Jerusalem. It is celebrated on Palm Sunday, which marks the first day of the Holy Week. The event of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem is mentioned in each of the four canonical Gospels. Palm Sunday is celebrated through the blessing and distribution of palm branches. This is done to represent the palm branches which the crowd scattered in front of Christ upon his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The palm branches are often woven into crosses. The icon at hand presents the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. It is made of mosaic.
In the icon, Christ is shown riding a donkey towards the gates of Jerusalem. Behind him are the 12 apostles, but only Peter, James, and John are the ones who take the front while the others stand behind them. Beneath the hoofs of the donkey are the cloaks of the people of Jerusalem who stand to welcome Jesus as the King of Israel. They are bowing to him as he moves towards the gate after they have spread their cloaks on the ground for him. In the background, the Mount of Olives is shown behind the disciples and the walls of Jerusalem are shown on the other side where the crowds are standing. Additionally, the palm trees are shown by the wall of Jerusalem and people are shown climbing the trees to take off the branches and spread them on the ground before Jesus.
Clothing and Colors
In the icon, Peter wears green garbs; a color which is often used to signify hope and eternal renovation which is quite fitting for the icon and the theme. Peter is also shown wearing a grayed beard which is also quite common in depictions of the disciple. Moreover, John is also dressed in a similar color if not the exact same, and in that, given the other characteristics of John, it could have been used to point out his youth along with hope. John’s face looks young and beardless and his hair is short and curled and the features of his face are visibly younger than both Peter and James. James, finally, is dressed in orange which could be a sign of self-domination and fullness of life. Around their heads are the halos in gold, and behind them the halos of the other disciples are visible. Other depictions of the scene often show more of the disciples. Oftentimes, Peter is shown next to Christ on the far side or even ahead of him at times.
Christ’s cloak is shown to be blue (lapis lazuli) or purple. Blue is the color used to show heavenly nature, while purple is the color of royalty and Christ is the King of Kings. Purple stands to be most fitting for the icon because of the nature of the event. The garb underneath Christ’s cloak is gold, the color reserved to Christ and it symbolizes the divine nature of God and the uncreated light of God. Additionally, there are stripes of a different shade of green or a light blue, which likely symbolizes the power of God and his justice. Cloaks are shown to be laid on the back of the donkey in colors matching the garbs of the apostles.
Beneath each of the donkey’s hoofs, a cloak is laid out as the people of Jerusalem placed their cloaks on the ground and spread them for Christ to march into Jerusalem as the King of Israel. The colors of the cloaks laid down are red, blue, green and another shade of red. And while the colors may have only been used to add contrast, they would present love, wisdom and justice. And the people who are shown in front of Christ are shown in their garbs. Movement is shown in the image as the people take off their cloaks in front of Christ.
The overwhelming color of the scene is gold, signifying the uncreated energies of God. Around Christ’s head, the halo is defined and it looks significantly different from the others with the cross inside of it. It is also significantly larger than the other halos as light emits from within him and spreads around. The 12 halos of the disciples behind Christ are somewhat smaller and they are only lined.
Christ signals to the viewer, blessing them. And the hands of the three visible disciples are pointed towards him. Additionally, the hands of the people who are not laying down their cloaks, are opened to Christ, as if they are praying to him. Two of the people in the background are pointing at Christ as well.
“They took branches of palm trees and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” — John (12:13)
The two visible apostles in the back are looking towards Christ while the third visible one, Peter, is shown to be conversing with the other disciples. Christ himself is depicted with a scroll in his hand, which could reflect the message he sought to bring to the people of Jerusalem, publicly claiming to be the people’s messiah and the King of Israel.
While Christ is mounting a donkey, it shows different characteristics to donkeys, but perhaps it has little to do with the iconography given that donkeys share similar characteristics with horses. However, the white represents purity, and it is possible that this is because Christ had chosen a donkey that has never been ridden before.
The donkey refers to peace in Eastern tradition while a horse is an animal of war. When a king would ride a horse, it would signify that he is bent on war, but when a king would choose to ride a donkey, it would signify his arrival in peace. In that sense, Christ’s arrival to Jerusalem symbolized his entry as the prince of peace not a king of war.
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” — Zechariah 9:9
One of the most prominent things in the icon painting tradition is the significance of size. As with many other icons, the size of Christ in the mosaic is larger than the other figures, despite it only being slightly larger than the disciples behind him. It is significantly larger than the figures ahead of him. The figures on the far right are only somewhat smaller, but the ones right before the donkey are significantly smaller. There are figures in the background, the ones who are on the palm trees, specifically, are even smaller than the rest, and despite the axonometric perspective that the mosaic follows traditionally. This could be to signify that they are further than the rest to add a hint of realism in the mosaic.
While Christ is only marginally larger than the apostles, it could be because he is mounting the donkey. Other images depicting the same scene often depict Christ larger.
Much like other icons, the mosaic follows the tradition of using the axonometric perspective which leads the viewer to feel engulfed in the scene and as if becoming a part of it. Additionally, the concept of sacred space is visible in the icon where the Mount of Olives is shown behind the disciples and the walls of Jerusalem are shown on the other side.
One thing that stands out in the depiction of Christ is the way he is sitting on the donkey's back. He is positioned to face the viewer which could be to immerse the viewer into the scene.
Background and Scenery
The overwhelming color of the background is gold, signifying the divine and uncreated energies of God. However, in the background, both the Mount of Olives and the Wall of Jerusalem show up. There are a couple of palm trees near the wall of Jerusalem upon which people climb to take out palm branches which they would lay onto the ground before Christ and the donkey for his entry into Jerusalem. Additionally, there is a building on the peak of the Mount of Olives which could be the Building of the Church.
The building atop of the mountain is not seen in many of the other icons depicting the same scene. And while it is speculative to view it as the building of the church, it could fall in line with the concept of sacred time which is another concept that falls within the tradition.
With the concept, that time moves towards Christ and once it reaches him, it is fulfilled and the concept that Christ is ever-present, for he is the Tree of Life that touches the heavens with its top and earth with its roots; connecting both; there is beautiful imagery in the icon that signifies that Christ is in the center of the universe. Behind him is the Mount of Olives and ahead of him, the Gate of Jerusalem; he is the center of time, for the past and the future merge within the imagery of the building of the church topping the Mount of Olives.
Written by Amr Abbas.