Images of this episode always follow the gospel text faithfully and do not vary significantly from each other. Smaller ones always have at least Jesus riding in from the left on an ass, one or more disciples, people laying garments before the ass, and someone in a tree cutting branches
In larger images such as the picture above, the artist will add to those features a welcoming crowd and the city of Jerusalem. In the commentaries the city represents Heaven and the Church, the entry represents "the salvation of the world," and the welcomers stand for the "saints and prophets who lived before his coming."1 Accordingly, Jesus is nearly always shown blessing them with his right hand. In his left he may hold some symbol of authority, such as a scroll (in the second picture on the right) or a hand cross
(example), or in Mexico a sceptre decorated with folk motifs
Cartlidge and Elliott (129) note that Byzantine and early western images often picture the welcomers as children (example). The Gospel of Nicodemus (I,3) says it was "the children of the Hebrews" who welcomed Jesus, and a 4th-century pilgrim reported that in Jerusalem's Palm Sunday service "the children bearing palms came forth to meet the Lord."
Sometimes the images give a glimpse of the garments that the disciples had laid upon the ass before Jesus sat on it, but often the garments are suppressed – presumably for the sake of simplicity. As for the garments laid on the path, some images portray people actually removing their own clothing to lay on the path. We see this on the right side of the picture above. In the second picture on the right, one man is actually stripping himself naked.
The gospels set this event on the Mount of Olives, and the commentaries agree that the trees there would be olives. This detail is retained in most images, perhaps most charmingly in Kastav's fresco, where olive flowers waft gently down onto a red carpet set before Jesus. John 12:13 says the welcomers were waving palm branches, and the day celebrating this event is called Palm Sunday, so occasionally the trees in the background will be palms and the welcoming crowd will be waving palm branches (example).
All the gospels say Jesus was riding on a colt or young ass except Matthew 21:2-5, which says that there were two mounts, an ass and a colt. Zechariah 9:9 ("riding upon an ass, and upon a colt") seems to support Matthew, but almost all images present just one beast (exception).
THE PALMESELIn Catholic and other traditional churches the entry into Jerusalem is celebrated on the Sunday before Easter. The faithful will carry palm leaves in a procession that ends in the church. In medieval Europe and even today in parts of the Hispanic world, these processions will involve what the Germans call a Palmesel, a wooden statue of Jesus on the ass, half or more of life-size and mounted on a wheeled pallet. As in the other images, Palmesel Christs usually raise their right hand in blessing. In one unusual case a small boy rides along with Jesus.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
Fresco in Pomposa Abbey fresco. See the description page for more.
MATTHEW 21:1-11 — And when they drew nigh to Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto mount Olivet, then Jesus sent two disciples, Saying to them: Go ye into the village that is over against you, and immediately you shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them and bring them to me. And if any man shall say anything to you, say ye, that the Lord hath need of them: and forthwith he will let them go. Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: Tell ye the daughter of Sion: Behold thy king cometh to thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of her that is used to the yoke. And the disciples going, did as Jesus commanded them. And they brought the ass and the colt, and laid their garments upon them, and made him sit thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way: and others cut boughs from the trees, and strewed them in the way: And the multitudes that went before and that followed, cried, saying: Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, the whole city was moved, saying: Who is this? And the people said: This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth of Galilee.
SARCOPHAGI OF THE 4TH CENTURY