This is a key event in Christ’s ministry, and so as well as being celebrated since antiquity, it is also a common icon in larger churches, along with other scenes from Christ’s life (c.a. the panel on the left, forming part of a four-paneled icon screen showing the Twelve Great Feasts).
The Icons themselves are similar in composition. To the left is the Mount of Olives and to the right is the city of Jerusalem, often depicted with the domed Temple (in later icons it may also anachronistically be topped by a Cross, like a church). In the centre, heading towards Jerusalem, is Jesus Christ sat upon either a donkey or a colt. The common understanding is that it was the donkey upon which Christ rode into Jerusalem, even though He commanded both a colt and a donkey to be brought to Him. Nevertheless, both animals would have been shocking to the Jews in Jerusalem: the donkey because it is an animal of peace and the Jews expected a conquering, war-like, Messiah; the colt because it was an animal associated with the Gentiles, whilst the Jews expected the Messiah to be only for them.
Despite the apparently inauspicious entry, the icons visibly depict the invisible glory and identity of Jesus: through His halo, and through the scroll He holds, symbolizing Holy Wisdom (see also: Icons of Christ).
Behind Christ, His disciples follow, usually headed by Peter and John – both Apostles being described as “pillars of the Church” by the Fathers.
The Twelve Apostles are often shown deep in conversation; good iconographers will depict them with expressions mixing wonder with apprehension. This is not surprising, as they had already shown consternation at Jesus’ insistence in returning to Judea due to the Jews’ threats (John 11:7-10). Now, not only is Jesus in Judea, but returning to Jerusalem itself, the seat of the Jewish religious authorities so determined to kill Him. They are also perplexed at Christ’s choice of transport. “These things His disciples understood not at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things unto Him”(John 12:16)
For this reason, in some Icons, Christ is shown turning back to the Apostles, as if exhorting them to continue.
Out of Jerusalem’s gates come the Hebrews who had gathered to celebrate the Passover. They are crying out: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!”(Matthew 21:9). Children are breaking off branches from the palms and laying them before Christ’s donkey, whilst others are laying their clothes before Him. In Russian icons, the palms sometimes look more like the local trees found there than the foliage of Jerusalem. In northern Eurasia, readily available willow branches are often used in place of the non-existent palms during services for the feast; the icons reflect this familiar local custom so as to more readily “connect” worshipers with the event they are celebrating.
That children are laying down their garments and cutting down palm branches is a detail found in almost all Icons of the Entry into Jerusalem, despite not being explicitly stated in Scriptures. However, the Icons are in perfect harmony with the hymns of the Church, which do specifically mention children:
Mounted on the throne in heaven, Christ God, and on the foal on earth, you accepted the praise of the Angels and the hymn of the children who cried to you: Blessed are you who come to call back Adam.
(Kontakion for Palm Sunday)
The message is clear: it is those with child-like simplicity and devotion who truly praise the Lord, whilst the adults – both the Apostles and the Jews – tend to get distracted and start wondering among themselves. In many icons the children taking off their clothes are revealed to be wearing white robes underneath, further emphasizing their purity and innocence. From the 14th century onwards a small detail appears of a child pulling a thorn from the foot of another. The thorn is picked up from climbing the palms, but the message behind this is that it is the spiritual ascent which is rough and uncomfortable, even for innocents.
The didactic function of the images reflects the ancient homilies of the Church Fathers, which link the event with the celebration, and the rituals of the celebration with our own lives. From St Andrew of Crete’s homily for Palm Sunday:
“Let us go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives. Today he returns from Bethany and proceeds of his own free will toward his holy and blessed passion, to consummate the mystery of our salvation.
… Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.”