Palm Sunday Processions

April 9, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Palmesel Figure, 1470-1490, German. Museum no. A.1030-1910.The Easter weekend is almost upon us which means that Palm Sunday has already passed. Palm Sunday is an important date in the Christian calendar as it marks the beginning of the events which led up to the Crucifixion of Jesus and his Resurrection. The Gospel accounts tells us that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on an ass and that he was greeted by a great crowd who spread palm branches before him.

There is a long tradition of the use of sculptures of Christ on an ass (known as Palmesels) in processions that commemorate Palm Sunday. The Palmesel figure in the V&A’s collection, shown in the pictures shown to the right here, was made around 1480 in Southern Germany. The locations of around two-hundred and seventy fourteenth-century Palmesel processions have been identified but only eight of the Palmesel figures from this time appear to have survived. There are more later figures in museums around the world, like the one at the V&A.

Most of the medieval Palmesels that have survived are no longer in active use but a number of Palmesel processions do still take place every year. Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to see one in the Austrian village of Thaur. Thaur is a few kilometres from Innsbruck and has a spectacular location, surrounded by snow capped mountains. I’ve illustrated this blog entry with a selection of photographs of the procession and posted others on Flickr. Click on a picture to find out more about what is shown.

Palm Sunday Procession in Thaur, Austria,  5th April 2009. The procession started just before 8.30am. The Palmesel figure was led from the main church in Thaur by two choirboys and processed to the smaller church of St Vigil. There the procession was greeted by the villagers who lined the streets, holding palm sticks decorated with banners, fruit and pretzels. After a blessing service outside the church of St Vigil the procession returned to the main church for Mass.

At 13.00 the procession left the main church and made its way up a steep pathway to the Chapel of St Romedius. The Palmesel was pulled by eight choirboys and watching the procession slowly climbing upwards to my vantage point was a spectacular sight. After a short service the procession returned back down the pathway and then turned towards the village of Rum.

Palm Sunday Procession, Thaur, Austria  5th April 2009.As the procession approached Rum the vicar and choirboys from the village church came out to meet the procession and followed into the church. After a short service the procession returned to Thaur where it arrived at around 3.00pm greeted by chiming church bells. Half-an-hour or so later I saw the Palmesel returning to the home of the family that own it and where it will stay until Palm Sunday 2010.

The procession was a remarkable experience which has made me think about the Palmesel in V&A’s collection very differently. It was fascinating to see the importance of the procession to the local community. The procession was filmed and the footage will be edited to create a short silent video for the  Religious Procession 1300-1500 display in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. We are very grateful to the church and people of Thaur for allowing us to film the procession.

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