The Palm Sunday icon

The Iconography and Symbolism of the Palm Sunday Icon

The Palm Sunday icon is an integral part of the Feasts tier of the iconostasis, which depicts one of the Twelve Great Feasts celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The events shown in the icon are mentioned in the four Gospels and have a deeply symbolic nature.

The Palm Sunday icon: iconography 

The icon depicts the episode from the life of Christ when He entered Jerusalem on a donkey on the eve of the Jewish Passover. Christ most often appears on the left side of the composition, and the “city gates” are on its right side. Usually, they look like a tower or a few buildings. The image of the city can also be absent in some icons. Jesus Christ is accompanied by the apostles. Sometimes, the face of Christ turns toward the city and sometimes to the apostles. The mountain is depicted behind the apostles’ backs on the left side of the composition.

The residents come out of the walled city of Jerusalem to meet Christ. Their number can be different. These may also include children cutting branches from palm trees and laying them, along with clothes, across Jesus’ path.

The uniqueness of the Palm Sunday icon is that it has stable iconography and symbols, but, at the same time, it can be quite variable because of the different interpretations. The number of characters, the appearance of the city, the landscape in the background, and the interaction between the members of the procession can be changed depending on the region and the icon painter’s view.

The symbolism of the plot and composition

The Palm Sunday icon has a rich symbolic and semantic meaning. The plot of this icon is the embodiment of the idea of the upcoming Resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ. It is simultaneously a harbinger of the tragic events of the Passion and the Crucifixion of Christ and His imminent return in glory.

Palm branches are the symbol of triumph and festivity. Jerusalem residents meet Christ as King and Savior, laying down palm branches and clothes in His path. The donkey in this iconography is a symbol of the Jewish people, and a colt, which is sometimes also depicted in the icon, is a symbol of the unbridled pagan people. The mountain in the background sometimes may have a cave as a reference to the empty tomb.

The Palm Sunday icon has an interesting and quite variable iconography and several semantic interpretations. However, the main idea of the icon is the acceptance of Christ as Messiah and Savior by the Jewish people.