Palm Branch and Crown

SYMBOLS OF MARTYRDOM
Classical art used two symbols signifying victory, the palm branch and the floral crown. In the mosaic above, the figure in the diaphanous garment on the left brings these two symbols to the winner of an athletic contest that included a foot-race and other events. The first image on the left has a winged Victory preparing to present a floral crown to the victor in the story of the Seven Against Thebes. The second image on the left is a detail from a sarcophagus: a winged Victory with a palm branch among other symbols representing a successful passage to the afterlife.

Christian art adopted these two symbols to represent the martyr's victory in passing through torments to the blessed life in Heaven. This adaptation of classical iconography was surely influenced by the recurrent metaphor in Paul's epistles comparing the hardships of the Christian life to a race for a prize or crown.1

In the early Christian centuries the floral crown of classical practice to which Paul refers his readers was conflated with the golden crowns that the twenty-four elders throw down before the throne in Revelation 4:10. Thus we see a procession of martyrs bringing their golden crowns to Christ in Ravenna's Sant'Apollinare Nuovo.

In later centuries the palm branch became the more typical symbol of martyrdom, as in the third picture at right. In Counter-Reformation and later art we also find angels bringing the palm branch and crown to the scene of a saint's martyrdom, for example in Caravaggio's Death of Matthew and Veronese's Martyrdom of St. Justina. This device may have been influenced by exposure to classical works; it is certainly consonant with the exuberant spirit of Catholic art of the time.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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SHOWN ABOVE

Detail from the Villa Romana Coronation of the Winner mosaic (early 4th century). See the description page for the whole mosaic and a brief discussion.

Detail from an amphora, 4th cent. B.C. – See description page for the complete amphora and a brief discussion.

Detail from a sarcophagus, 2nd century A.D. – See description page for the whole sarcophagus and a brief discussion.

Giovenone, St. Protasius, 16th century: The palm branch says he was mar­tyred and the sword tells how. See the de­scrip­tion page for full size and more dis­cus­sion.

NOTES
1 For example, I Corinthians 9:24-25, "Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one." Also see Philippians 3:14 ("I press toward the mark for the prize") and 2:16, Galatians 2:2, and Hebrews 12:1.