One of my favorite genres of medieval sculpture is the so-called Palm Sunday Donkey (German: Palmesel), a tradition that thrived in particular in Central Europe from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, when the rise of the Enlightenment and new ideas of propriety led the Church to suppress the increasingly raucous behavior that accompanied it. Palm Sunday processions commemorating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem are documented beginning in the seventh century. At first, it seems, a priest or villager rode a donkey in these processions, but there were concerns over the vanity of the performer and hubris of imitating Christ. In any case, it eventually proved more practical to substitute a dependable sculpture for a sometimes recalcitrant beast. Both the use of the live donkey and the wooden substitution are documented since the late tenth century. The typical Palm Sunday donkey thus consisted of a figure of Christ seated on a donkey mounted on a wheeled platform. Most such sculptures were large if not life-sized and carved of limewood or oak, decorated with colored paint.
The Cloisters and other sources speak of some 50 surviving examples at the end of the nineteenth century, but modern inventories cite 190 examples in the German-speaking lands alone. The earliest, in Switzerland, dates from circa 1200, and there are a few other examples from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but most are late-medieval.
I honestly forget where I first encountered this phenomenon: I believe it was in college while spending a summer studying German in the Catholic region around Freiburg, with its great museum of medieval art. It was probably only after my return that I discovered we had one in the University of Wisconsin art museum. (My photos are not accessible to me at the moment, but this one shows it nicely.) At any rate, the genre always appealed to me, for it perfectly embodied both the humanity and the majesty of Christ in church doctrine, and the donkey (much like a nativity scene) had a wonderful way of bringing home the nature and naive charm of popular religion in rural medieval society.
|Palmesel (15th-century Germany), The Cloisters|
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The biblical entry into Jerusalem had its modern historical resonances, as well: When British General Allenby captured the city in December 1917, he made a point of entering on foot: not only out of humility vis-à-vis Christ--but also as a rebuke to the Kaiser, who on his visit had ridden in on a grand horse.