Botanical and Horticulture Photography PALM SYMBOLISM 2

Botanical and Horticulture Photography PALM SYMBOLISM 2

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7. It was probably this secular use of the palm

which excluded it from the symbolism of the

Church during the early centuries, for it is palm

trees not palm branches which are found in

the early mosaics, notably those of S. Apollinare

Nuova in Ravenna, where palm trees alternate

with the figures round the frieze, and palm trees,

according to St Ambrose, were not the symbol

of victory but the emblem of the righteous

man, ‘ for its roots are upon the earth but its

head is lifted towards the heavens.

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8. But by the thirteenth century the public

games had dropped from Italian social life, and

religious art reverted once more to the palm

branch of the catacombs as the symbol of

a martyr’s triumph over death. Durandus,

writing about the year 1286, unites the different

renderings of the palm’s significance. He says:

“Martyrs are painted with the instruments

of their torture and sometimes with palms,

which signify victory, according to that saying:

The righteous shall flourish like a palm

tree; as a palm tree flourishes, so his memory

shall be preserved.”

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9. After the Renaissance martyrs were very

generally depicted with palms, either in place

of, or in addition to, the instruments of their

martyrdom. They varied in size and shape,

from the tiny closed palm no longer than a

human hand, used by Cimabue, to the magnificent

pedestal of palm branches on which Carpaccio

has set his Saint Ursula in Glory.

Saint Christopher, the giant saint, in consideration

of his size, was always allowed a whole

palm tree as his staff, but a whole palm tree, or

the tiniest scrap of its foliage, carried exactly

the same meaning.

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10. The palm is also given occasionally to several

saints who have not suffered a violent death,

but have been conspicuous for their victory

over pain and temptation; for instance. Saint

Francis, Saint Catharine of Siena and Saint

Clare.

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11. Even in the Catacombs two palms are sometimes

placed crossways, not on the tombs of

martyrs only, but on other Christian tombs,

to signify the victory of the cross. For life as

a declared Christian in the early days of the

faith was sufficiently difficult and perilous, even

if it did not end in death at the hands of the

executioner. In the same way the pilgrim

who had overcome difficulties and encountered

possible death on a journey of piety to the holy

sepulchre was permitted to take the name of

palmer when he brings home his staff enwreathed

with palm.

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12. Meanwhile palms never fell into disuse as a

secular symbol. When they appear on the seals

and coins of emperors and kings they indicate

entirely worldly power and authority, and it is

not in recognition of sainthood that the winged

genius presents Henri IV with palm and wreath

of laurel in the fine allegorical picture of

his “Entry into Paris after the Battle of Ivry”.

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(End of part 2)

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