One of the major events of the last days of Jesus Christ’s earthly life – the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem – is described fully in all four Gospels (Matthew 21: 1-11; Mark 11: 1-11; Luke 19: 28-40; John 12: 12-19). The triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem shortly before Easter chronologically preceded His Passion and was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies (Genesis 49: 10-11; Psalms 8: 2-3; Zachariah. 9: 9). The feast of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem is celebrated on Sunday before Easter and is the beginning of the Maundy week. Palm branches (Greek βα?α) playing an important role in the event, its symbolical meaning and the liturgy, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem is also called the Palm Sunday; in Eastern Christianity it is one of the Twelve Great Feasts, also known as Цветная/Цветоносная неделя (Flower Week). In Russian liturgical practice, palm trees are traditionally replaced with pussy-willow, that’s why the Palm Sunday is also called “the Pussy-Willow Sunday”

Five days before the Hebrew feast of Passover, the Lord came to the villages of Bethpage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives with his disciples and asked them to bring Him a young donkey that no one had ridden before. When the disciples did what Jesus had told them to do, He sat astride the donkey and descended from the mount to Jerusalem. His disciples and the crowds of people welcomed Him shouting out greetings and throwing coats and palm branches on His way, exclaiming “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! (Matthew 21:9). All Evangelists, excluding Mark, note the discontent that the chief priests and the scribes expressed with this event, and, primarily, with the fact that Jesus Christ didn’t forbid people to hail Him as a Messiah. The Evangelist Matthew reports that Christ’s Entrance into Jerusalem stirred up the whole city (Matthew 21:10). The Evangelist John writes that the reason why Jesus was given such a triumphant welcome was his miraculous raising of Lazarus of the dead. (John 12:17-18). The Evangelists Matthew and Luke see a direct connection between Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and His cleansing the Temple of Jerusalem of merchants (Matthew 21: 12-13; Luke 19: 45-46).

The early Christian images of the Savior riding astride a donkey are encountered as early as the 4th century. According to N.V.Pokrovsky, sarcophagus reliefs represent two types of the scene: one depicting the Savior sitting on a donkey (the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359, the Vatican Museums), and another, a very rare one, based on the Gospel according to Matthew (Matthew 21: 1-9), showing a colt walking alongside the donkey Jesus is riding upon (sarcophagus, the 6th century, the Lateran Museum, Rome).

The common compositional base for the iconography of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem – the solemn procession at the Jerusalem Gates – varies in details emphasizing the different aspects of its meaning. The essential compositional elements are the images of the Mount of Olives in the left part and the city in the right. Behind the walls of Jerusalem, in the center of town, is an image of the Temple, sometimes culminating in a cross. Christ is shown followed by a group of the apostles. Right by the walls of Jerusalem Jesus is greeted by the crowds of people.

The bottom part of the composition represents the children rejoicing at the coming of the Savior. While the canonical Gospels don’t mention any children welcoming Christ, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus reports that the Lord was welcomed by the children of Hebrews holding branches in their hands and exclaiming “Hosanna!” On many Byzantine and Russian monuments children with palm branches are shown by the donkey’s feet, climbing up the trees and breaking off the branches, or sitting on the shoulders of their parents who went out of Jerusalem to meet Jesus. In early Christian monuments the Savior was shown sitting on a donkey with his legs turned to the people and his face towards the city. In the 14th – 15th centuries Christ was represented in a more complex perspective turning back to the apostles. This pose of Jesus Christ is encountered on the earliest Russian icons: in the festival rows of the iconostasis in Novgorod’s Church St. Sophia (ca. 1341); in the Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow’s Kremlin (early 15th c.); in the Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius (1425-1427); in the Church of the Dormition in the St. Cyrill of Belozersk Convent (1497), and many others.

The Russian medieval iconographic practice attached much importance to the ritual procession symbolizing Christ’s Entrance to Jerusalem on the Palm Sunday that has been known in Russia not later than in the 16th century. During this ritual representing itself a more complicated version of the Cross-Processing, a patriarch or a pontiff with a cross and a Gospel in his hands would ride astride a donkey (usually replaced with a dressed horse) snaffled by the Tsar or an honorary citizen. Ahead of the donkey drove a cart with a pussy-willow tree decorated and bedangled with sweets. In and around the cart were the singers; at each station there was a reading of Gospel fragments pertaining to the feast. In the late 17th century, the ritual was reserved only for the patriarchal service and was further abolished under Peter the Great. The elements of this solemn procession have survived in the feast’s iconography: on some icons the donkey is replaced with a horse, Jesus Christ is holding a Gospel book in his hands, while the citizens welcoming the Savior at the Gates of Jerusalem are dressed in rich Russian garments.

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.