Jesus Enters Jerusalem, A Sculpture For Palm Sunday.
Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. If you don’t know the tale, you should, because it is one of the brighter moments of human history.
This sculpture depicts Jesus on the donkey, and since both are made of wood, the donkey has been put on wheels. It was made in Southern Germany in the early part of the fourteenth century, around 1330. Today we would describe the style as ‘naive’ in that it is simple, unadorned and to be blunt, artless. That wasn’t the point, but then, artlessness can be artistic when done with care. What it does have is that which the modern naive painters forget: it has charm.
Whilst it is a simple, straightforward sculpture that otherwise has nothing going for it, it is a symbol of its time. There may have been many more of these, the very nature of the passing of time is that successive generations lose interest in the things their distant forefathers did and they are forgotten. This will have sat in the corner of a church – that it found itself washed up on the distant shores of the Rijksmuseum Twente in Enschede is testament to the fact that modern people do not need crummy depictions of Jesus on what looks like a child’s toy.
At the time it was created, it was hard enough to find the time to be creative, it was a world where spare time was a rarity. If one was not working at something, you would have been a monk or a priest and your days would have been delineated by the various religious observations that are part and parcel of the monastic world. Nor was there much by way of learning: the universities had not flowered as yet, as they would two centuries later. There was the Sorbonne, Oxford and Tübingen and a scattering of others; they would all teach in Latin. Anybody who was anybody spoke Latin, which was no bad thing in as much as anybody who was anybody, be they Swedish, Dutch or French could merrily chat away in a Lingua Latina.
This did lead to something of a problem for the ordinary person who didn’t speak Latin. They were left to their local dialect and given the static nature of their world, they were unlikely to need anything else. Around Tübingen today, each valley you walk into will have their own distinct dialect. If you didn’t need to go anywhere, it didn’t matter as everybody around you spoke a language you understood. Two hours’ walk to Tübingen would lead you into a culture where people spoke in funny dialects that were hard to understand. The repellence would be enough to send the visitor home in the way Americans want to leave Europe because the strangeness of a culture that doesn’t speak American is so challenging. The American response is to turn Europe into America, in the way they suggest the migrants want to. But then, this is all the American knows about assimilation.
This kind of linguistic diversity was erased in France through its attempts to centralize the country under one official dialect, but this was in the 1900s, and was largely successful. Those communities who thought themselves French yet spoke German suddenly found their schools teaching the official French.
The relationship that people had to the church before the Protestant Reformation would be one of knowing the priest and knowing what he will say because he’s said it on every Sunday for the thirty years of your life. You know the sounds, you haven’t a clue what they mean. Through the week the priest will have spoken with his community in a way to explain what was going on and what was being said. Naturally, the most effective element of this would be the story and since the Bible is jam packed with stories, there is one for pretty well every situation that life demands.
The stories will have come to life each time one of the fellow villagers engaged with another, the story depending on the circumstance. In this way, the stories told retained their inner life because there was an inner life that would bring them to life afresh.
Which is where votive offerings made their appearance: the inner life of ordinary people was already on the wane and their abilities to let these stories live in their minds was dimming. In the way that people’s abilities to engage with each other today is dimming. The way to encourage people to ‘see’ was to give them something to look at, rather than stimulate their imagination through more effective means. The other side of this problem was the native unwillingness to imagine, which in and of itself demanded graven images.
Thus we have the need for a sculpture and almost by extension, someone who had the kind of money to pay for its creation. People don’t need to show their wealth if their lives are filled with the living stories of the bible and of the brilliance of creation that flourishes around us. But here in Southern Germany some seven hundred years ago, someone needed to say that they were good and they believed – and everybody was happy because they could see what they should have been believing in. The sculpture is almost life size, and if drawn through the crowds, it would give the appearance that He was actually among us again. It is what they will have hoped for, still do, missing the point that it is for us to find Him in every living soul we meet. With all too many having demanded the images, it means that in our day and age there are all too few who know what it is to be truly human.
The crudity of this figure is part and parcel of the time. People didn’t need the stimulation that they do today; an object that they would see wheeled out on every Palm Sunday was enough to remind them of the stories of how He entered Jerusalem. Today we need violent images that stamp on our bare toes with hobnailed boots to bring even the dimmest awareness to the modern human. If there is violence, swift scene changes and lots of detail, you know that the person’s imagination passed the nadir a decade ago or more.
The challenge in the 1300s was the same as it is today: whilst we can enjoy the sculpture of Jesus, it’s not necessary to our faith. But this was a world that did not change, where a local dialect was all one needed and the travelling tinkers spoke in a way that was puzzling, but didn’t stir any thoughts as to why this was.
Today we have ultra detailed pre-Raphaelite paintings but we live in a world that has changed immeasurably since they were painted a century ago. The reason for that change is because people want to live in a world that doesn’t change and are thus unwilling to accept change – and in the way my ex spoke of the British pound as being a consistent value forgot that the entire system was turned on its head forty years ago. That had been forgotten, the new normal was normality now. Soon that normality will change by the day and not the fortnight that Donald Trump was decrying North Korea, only to be forgotten as quickly as the Salisbury caper has been. The problem in both cases is that the damage they have wrought will be remembered for decades.
Humanity is changing, our problem is that we are unwilling to deal with that. Palm Sunday is the day when we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem, and it is a lovely story. What we must also remember is that one short week later, He had risen from the dead on Easter Sunday. His visit to Jerusalem was all too short; our visit to reality need not be.