Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem Seen in History, and Through Giotto’s Eyes

SCRIPTURES & ART: Christ’s kingdom is “an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.”

Giotto, “The Entry into Jerusalem,” ca. 1305
Giotto, “The Entry into Jerusalem,” ca. 1305 (photo: Public Domain)

Palm Sunday is, as far as I remember, the only Sunday Mass in which we read two Gospels. The historical evolution of the liturgy of Palm Sunday led to Mass opening with an “entry to Jerusalem.” That element, which involves the blessing of and procession with palms, is preceded by a greeting that highlights the significance of the start of Holy Week and a reading of the Gospel of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-10). The main Gospel of Palm Sunday is always the complete Passion according to one of the Synoptics (this year, Mark 14:1-15:47). The Gospel for Good Friday’s Liturgy of the Word is always the Passion according to John. 

Mark’s Passion is the shortest of the three, with the fewest unique elements. The latter include the inclusion of the account of the anointing of Jesus’ feet (14:3-9) with “perfumed oil” by a “woman” and the detail that one of the disciples in Gethsemane, to avoid capture when he was seized, ran off leaving his clothes behind (14:51-52). Since, however, the perfumed anointing can be omitted in the “short form” of the already short Markan Passion and the linen garment incident can be stretched only so far, we’ll focus on the Gospel of the entry to Jerusalem. 

Giotto (c. 1267-1337) stands on the bridge between the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods in Italy. Many deem him the “father of European painting.” His fresco, “The Entry into Jerusalem” is dated around 1305.

Jesus arrives on a donkey, blessing the awaiting crowd. Prophetically, his ingress on a donkey fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9): “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! Your king comes to you, victorious and righteous, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

The advent of kings in Antiquity was a grand affair. Kings might have entered a city on an elephant or some other stately beast, not a common donkey. But Jesus is not a king or a messiah tailored to Antiquity’s expectations, as the dispute over his kingship that unfolds in Good Friday’s Gospel will show (see John 19:12-16). Nor are donkeys alien to this king whose mother, by tradition, made her way to Bethlehem and probably to and from Egypt on a donkey. Finally (as Taylor Marshall notes), just as a donkey first carried the wood for Isaac’s sacrifice (before Isaac himself bore it—see Genesis 22:3-5) so Jesus is himself, the new Isaac of which Isaac was a foreshadowing, is carried by a donkey before he bears the wood of the cross himself. 

The Apostles follow Jesus as a kind of royal retinue. Four are clearly visible, but the rims of halos suggest (my reproduction of the picture is not that exact) twelve. They meet the greeting party that has come out of the gates of Jerusalem to welcome him. As I count (again, my reproduction is not that exact), there are twelve people in the welcoming committee (if you count the two in the trees). A lad seems to lay out the “red carpet” for Jesus. A girl bows deeply, her veil covering her entire head. Men, women, and children joyfully greet him. Two are up in the trees, cutting palm fronds to welcome the king. 

The haloed party accompanying the king (whose appearance is both regal yet humble) also already suggests the kind of kingdom Jesus is bringing to unhaloed Jerusalem. We speak of that kingdom every year in the preface for the Solemnity of Christ the King. His is “an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” 

I am struck by the contraposition of the two parties. While it is possible that the apostolic party approaches the city to be greeted by its inhabitants, that’s not what the text suggests. Those who greeted Jesus “went ahead of him and … followed him, shouting” (Mark 11:9; Matthew 21:9). One can thus imagine the welcome party to have been more interspersed with the arrivals, especially if one considers that Jesus was likely welcomed by the average Jewish believer, not the Holy City’s establishment. Can we perhaps then also suggest that their opposite positioning in this fresco might also augur something about the masses’ fickle loyalties? The crowd standing before him in welcome on Sunday will also be the crowd standing before him in opposition on Friday. 

In keeping with the late Gothic, the scene is relatively flat. The landscape is reduced to the necessary minimum: you’ve got to have a few palm trees on Palm Sunday. Otherwise, the conventions of the Renaissance appear. All the characters are dressed as 14th-century Europeans, not first-century Jews. Jesus and his apostolic court are particularly richly attired, as befits their royal rank. Compare the detail of their clothes, in contrast to their subjects’. Jerusalem, too, looks more like a walled medieval European city than a walled ancient Middle Eastern one. The entrance gate seems particularly grand. Is it a function simply of the art conventions of the time, or an allusion to the Bible (“O gates, lift high your heads! Grow higher, ancient doors! Let him enter, the King of Glory!” —Psalm 24:7)?

The Markan Gospel pericope read before the blessing of palms at Mass today speaks of how the king in fact acquired the donkey: by borrowing it in one of the adjacent villages. That element does not figure in Giotto’s fresco.

In these reflections, we’ve repeatedly cited Mark’s “Messianic Secret.” Jesus is constantly telling everybody — Apostles, disciples, even devils – to keep silent about whom he is. That injunction remains in place until Jesus’ Resurrection, when he sends them into the world to proclaim the Gospel (Mark 16:15, 20). In that light, Giotto’s regal entrée, while perhaps keeping with the understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission held by 14th-century Christians, was likely far grander than what happened on the real Palm Sunday (even assuming, as some commentators do, that Giotto painted according to Matthew’s account of events). On the other hand, a king who offers salvation to those who seek it and guarantees the definitive victory of his kingdom of “justice, love, and peace” at the end of human history is indeed grand.