By Dr Angela McCarthy
John Paul’s Palm Sunday is a very rich symbolic view that stems from the theme of the Mandorla Art Award taken from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians 4:4. : “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law”.
Born of a woman, Jesus learned to love through the love of his family, and particularly the love of his mother Mary.
Love comes in many forms and in this image Jesus is surrounded by women.
The sensual woman in the front of the artwork carries a basket of fruits and bread, fecund symbols representing our procreative gift that directly connects us to the creative nature of God.
Jesus, with his Jewish curl and tranquil face, reaches out to her lovingly and gently.
The olive fruit and leaves above him is a further symbol of the bounty of God’s gifts to us all.
The woman has turned her back to the pagan image on the wall behind and reaches for Jesus instead.
Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem to confront the Temple leaders with a conscious reference to the prophet Zechariah 9:9-10 where the king comes “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey”.
John Paul comfortably jumbles the narrative with other iconographical details such as the crown of thorns and the crucifix, an emblem of his death, held by a woman, possibly his mother, in the background.
The crown of thorns has a grape vine leaf attached to it giving a connection to John’s gospel where Jesus describes himself as the vine, necessary for the growth of the branches – the development of Christianity.
The woman near Jesus’ right shoulder is serene and shows signs of wealth recognising the women who supported Jesus in his ministry through their own resources (Luke 8:2-3).
The young woman to the right holds a newly hatched chicken, symbol of new life and resurrection.
The palms present over the arch way certainly image the palms used to honour Jesus on this fateful ride and as a further symbol in Christian art they represent martyrdom with a vine winding its way around them to anchor Jesus in this reality too.
The aged Jewish man skulking off in the background symbolises the betrayal of the Jews in relegating the Law and work of God to mere words rather than a just and loving way of living.
On the archway that links Jesus, the women and the Jew are some of the ancient symbols that are now used for the evangelists, linking this work directly to the gospels.
John Paul has used a very interesting style in that he has created the work in a monochromatic way with all the action happening in a very shallow plane, just as in the bas relief works of early Christian sarcophagi.
His use of this style places his work firmly in the Christian tradition. John Paul, like other great artists, has been able to encourage us into an understanding of Jesus, who was born of a woman, born under the law and fully realised in his suffering, death and resurrection.
Dr Angela McCarthy lectures in theology at Notre Dame University and is a committee member of the Mandorla Art Prize.