Fr. Scott A. Haynes
Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto di Bondone.
Ambrogiotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337), more commonly “Giotto,” was an Italian painter and architect from Florence. Regarded as the “Father of the Renaissance,” Ambrogiotto (“Little Ambrose”) was born in Tuscany in 1267. A contemporary of his, Giovanni Villani, asserted Giotto was “the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to their nature.”
Giotto’s masterwork is the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel) in Padua (1305-1306). This was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy Italian banker in the early 1300’s. It served as restitution for Giotto’s father’s involvement in unjust usury dealings. In the series of paintings created for this chapel, Giotto depicts the life of Christ and Mary. Because the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is told in all four Gospel accounts, Giotto considered it most fitting to prominently depict this scene in the Scrovegni Chapel.
Arena Chapel (Scrovegni Chapel) in Padua, Italy.
As we study Giotto’s Entry into Jerusalem, we more easily delve into its meaning, due to our familiarity with the sacred ceremonies of the Liturgy of Palm Sunday, with its blessing of palms and procession.
Procession on Palm Sunday in England, c. 1930.
From antiquity, the commemoration of the events on Palm Sunday was observed in Jerusalem. A Spanish nun named Egeria, who was a 4th century pilgrim to Jerusalem, left us a detailed account of Holy Week ceremonies. In her account, she describes the scene in Jerusalem at Mass on Palm Sunday, as the Christian faithful celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem:
…as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying: “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” and the Bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: “Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.” And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old.
As Egeria describes, the Mass of Palm Sunday is a day of high liturgical drama. It teeters on the edge between joy and heartbreak. Christ’s entrance into the Holy City is met with cries of “Hosanna!” At the beginning of Holy Mass, we hold our palm branches, recalling how the people of the Hebrews laid their palm branches at Christ’s feet. This scene is recalled by the chanting of the ancient hymn of Theodulph of Orleans  entitled Gloria, laus et honor, which has been translated into English as, “All glory, laud and honor, to Thee, Redeemer, King.” But, later in the Sacred Liturgy, when the Holy Gospel of Christ’s Passion is read, the “Hosanna” is hushed. Now the mob cries out: “Crucify Him!”
Clergy hold palm branches during the Palm Sunday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Giotto’s Entry into Jerusalem invites us into that first moment of the Palm Sunday Liturgy—a scene of rejoicing! True to his form, Giotto presents a vibrant scene that is true to life, painting the Gospel scene with detail. Giotto captures the moment of celebration but notice that there is a hesitancy that he also captures in his painting. Taking a deeper look, we notice that Giotto depicts a scene full of contradictions. The celebratory aspect of the scene is evident as we gaze upon the brilliant blue sky, the olive trees in silver-green, and the walls of Jerusalem in glistening white. This provides a backdrop to a cavalcade of persons meeting Christ in the center of the scene.
The disciples passively follow their Lord, while the people of Jerusalem actively hail and honor Him. The disciples are jammed together on the left-hand side of the painting. We only see the faces of four of them, while the remainder of the twelve are merely suggested by the tops of their heads, each topped with golden halos. Standing behind the Lord, shoulder to shoulder, they form a tight mass—alert, sober, watchful, and cautious of the crowd. Their mindset is understandable, because shortly before, Jesus had thrice told them that He would be arrested and killed in Jerusalem. They are no doubt afraid for their Lord as well as for themselves. What lies ahead is unknown. They are trepidatious. What will be the cost of their discipleship? What will it mean to follow Christ?
In striking contrast, the welcoming crowd positioned on the right is quite different. Full of both men, women, and children, these are not fearfully huddled together as Christ’s disciples. There is space between them. Each face is seen clearly. Luke 19:37 reports that the crowd
“...began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.”
John 12:17-18 elaborates upon this:
“Now the crowd that was with Him when He called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that He had performed this sign, went out to meet Him.”
The crowd greeting Christ waves palm fronds. Some among them climb trees to get a better view or perhaps to retrieve their own palm branch. There is a tremendous sense of movement and action as they surge out of the city gates to greet their coming King. Bent low, one man struggles to pull the green cloak off of his head. He is joining those in the crowd who are spontaneously taking off their cloaks in order to roll out the “red-carpet.”
Their mouths are open widely and we can almost hear them shouting:
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
For the Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel, these terms would be full of historical and theological significance. It is clear that the crowd understands that Jesus is the promised King. Yet, the faces of the crowd suggest something foreboding. All fixed their gaze upon Christ; their faces are full of intensity. In the distance, we almost hear the foreboding words of the Psalmist:
“Many dogs surround me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me.”
Giotto’s fresco  shows how the donkey Christ rides upon prominently. The donkey, a picture of docility, drives a wedge into the crowd. As she plods forward, the donkey is the very picture of innocent humility and good will. Christ, riding upon the donkey’s back, blesses the crowd as He advances. Our Lord is full of purpose and mission. He is ready to begin the week of His Sacred Passion. Jesus’ gaze rests on the boy waving his palm. Jesus’ face recalls the words spoken by Isaiah of the Messiah:
“I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”
Consider Christ’s countenance once more. His face is resolved but peaceful. Giotto suggests that Our Lord has a quiet gratitude as the crowd that exclaims “Hosanna” in welcome. As the Hebrews called out “Hosanna” (i.e., “God save us”), were they truly acknowledging Jesus as their Messiah and King? Did they really comprehend who Jesus was? Christ knew their hearts, just as He knows ours. St. Paul says,
“He knows us far better than we know ourselves.”
Jesus knew the aspirations and beliefs of each heart present that day. But He also knew the fickleness of His crowd standing around Him.
Those who shout “Hosanna,” who see in Him the Messiah and Savior of Israel, soon will shout “Crucify” and exclaim:
“We have no king by Ceasar.”
We are rather like the fickle crowd. We betray Christ when it is no longer fashionable to follow Him, when it is not comfortable for us, or when following Him means forsaking ourselves more than we want. If we want to be Christ’s faithful flock, we should be honest with ourselves, praying like St. Philip Neri:
“Watch me, O Lord, this day, for abandoned to myself, I shall surely betray Thee.”
Returning to Giotto’s painting, we see that he hints of what is to come in the week of Christ’s Passion. The palm frond raised above the donkey suggests Christ’s scourging at the pillar. The two figures swinging on the trees, clothed in white perhaps suggest the purity required of the Lamb of God spoken of in Isaiah:
“Like an innocent lamb, He was led to the slaughter.”
Consider these two figures hanging from the trees from yet another perspective. Might this not recall to our minds the sight of Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary surrounded by the two thieves who were also crucified with Him? Notice that the man in the tree to the right holds his arms in a crucified position, by which Giotto quietly suggests to us what will be the ultimate outcome of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
In the center of the fresco is Jesus, our graceful Savior, full of Messianic dignity. Garbed in a red cloak to signify how He will soon shed His Precious Blood on Calvary, Jesus’ eyes are focused, as He firmly holds the harness of the donkey in His left hand. His right hand is raised in blessing. But look more closely at the position of His right hand. The three closed-in fingers represent the Trinity while the two upright fingers proclaim His divinity and humanity.
While the crowds surge and shout in the streets, Christ’s gesture tells us what the nature of His kingdom will be—a kingdom of justice, love and peace. As the week of Christ’s Passion unfolds, all of the ugliness of our sin is laid bare. The lies, ridicule, hostility, brutality, abandonment, violence and gruesome death that mankind inflicts upon Jesus during His Passion reveal the depths of Christ’s love for us in coming to save us from our sins.
The Old Testament speaks of today’s scene:
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
The prophet Zechariah is teaching that the Messiah comes not as a warrior mounted upon a war horse, nor as a political revolutionary over the Empire of Rome, as perhaps the Hebrews were hoping for, but the Messiah enters Jerusalem riding on a humble donkey determined to defeat the bondage of sin and death, as the King of righteousness and peace.
As we watch Our Lord enter Jerusalem with great composure and dignity, these verses from Zechariah come alive before our eyes. We realize that the hand of Divine Providence has planned all of this. Matthew 21:1-5 teaches us that Jesus has arranged for the donkey to be available. Our Savior requests that the disciples go and find the donkey and the colt, untie them and bring them to Him. Luke 19:39- 40 informs us that the crowd included some Pharisees who also make the connections with Zechariah’s prophet text and with the cries of “Hosanna” and are deeply shaken by the implications, realizing the people see Jesus as the Messiah.
“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’”
Jesus’ reply indicates that He accepts the crowd’s declarations, telling the Pharisees:
“‘I tell you,’ He replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out!’”