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date: 20 September 2019


  • Ulrike Liebl


Term applied to life-size wooden sculptures carved in the round and originally always painted, commemorating the entry of Christ into Jerusalem riding on an ass, as recounted in Matthew 21:1–11. There are also smaller palmesel statuettes made of wood, pewter, plaster or ivory that must have served a different function; there is some evidence that they were used as accompanying figures to the actual palmesel, or as toys.

From the Early Christian period, in the Eastern Churches, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was commemorated on Palm Sunday by a solemn procession, which often resembled the ceremonial associated with the entry of a ruler into a city. In these processions a Gospel book or a consecrated Host was frequently carried as a symbol of Christ, and those taking part carried blessed palm branches and laid garments in the path of the procession. This practice was adopted in the Western Church by the 7th century, but in the Middle Ages the symbols were replaced by a live donkey or a wooden figure. The first documentary evidence of the use of a palmesel comes from a contemporary account dating from between 982 and 992 of the Life of St Ulrich of Augsburg (890–972; extract in Wiepen), but it is uncertain whether this was a three-dimensional figure or a painted image, such as those in use in Italy in the 11th century. Such palmesel processions appear to have been customary in ...

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