In yesterday’s article, I showed how the palm tree came to flourish in landscape paintings of the Mediterranean coast, and in the conservatories of the upper middle class. Today I turn to their depiction in paintings first about Classical mythology, and then in Christian religious works.
According to Virgil’s Aeneid, during his protracted journey from the ruins of Troy to found what later became Rome, Aeneas visited the island of Delos. Twin trees there commemorated the birth of twins Diana and Apollo to the goddess Leto (Latona).
One of Claude Lorrain’s masterpieces, a singular painting in every respect, is Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (1672). This was the first of half a dozen works which Claude painted in the final decade of his life, based primarily on the Aeneid. Its meticulous details are supported by a coastal landscape of great beauty. The twin trees at its centre, an olive and palm according to myth, now provide shade for a shepherd and his flock of sheep.
Paintings of the New Testament adopt the palm in two major narratives in the life of Jesus: the Flight to Egypt, when he was an infant, and his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem at the start of the Passion, on what has become Palm Sunday.
Palm leaves are a controversial feature of the first version of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous paintings: the Virgin of the Rocks now in the Louvre in Paris, which was probably completed between about 1483-85. Its complex multi-figure composition, set in an elaborately detailed landscape, makes this the most ambitious of Leonardo’s early paintings.
The central figure is the Virgin Mary, whose right hand clasps the back of the infant Saint John the Baptist. With her is an angel, whose left hand supports the lower back of the younger baby Jesus. Its landscape is richly detailed, with an abundance of symbols. Palm leaves behind the infant John are associated with the flight to Egypt, and with the Passion, and it has recently been proposed that they model scallop shells, which lead into another symbolic realm altogether.
His second version of this motif mysteriously omits the palm leaves.
Fra Bartolomeo’s The Rest on The Flight into Egypt from about 1500 is a traditional composition showing Mary and Joseph during their journey to Egypt. This was one of the last paintings which Baccio della Porta, as he still was at the time, made before he became a Dominican friar; he entered the monastery of San Marco the following year.
When Fra Bartolomeo started painting again after 1504, it was only appropriate that he should return to the same motif. In this version from about 1509, he became one of the first artists to use an asymmetric variant of multiplex narrative which is more subtle, and may have been seen at the time as progressive. Joseph and Mary are shown in the dominant scene with the two infants. In the distance at the right is a couple, dressed identically, undertaking the same journey. They too are Mary and Joseph, and remind the viewer of the underlying story.
Raphael’s Holy Family with a Palm Tree from 1506 shows a more extended family group, presumably during the flight to Egypt, according to the visual clue of the palm tree. That palm is depicted in careful detail, even down to its realistically shaggy trunk.
Tintoretto’s Flight into Egypt from about 1582 shows the Holy Family hiking their way through a lush valley, with tougher terrain in the distant hills, and an exuberant palm at the right. In the background, local peasants are fishing on the river, and there’s a small town behind their humble farm. In the far right foreground, a rough wooden cross is a poignant reminder of what was to come in Christ’s adult life. The rope by which Joseph is leading their donkey forms a pictorial link with Tintoretto’s Passion scenes up in the albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.
William Blake’s Virgin and Child in Egypt from 1810 is one of his unusual glue tempera paintings in which he achieves fine modelling of flesh. This is in essence a Virgin and Child against Blake’s imagined view of the pyramids, and a tiny sphinx, together with the River Nile and the city of Cairo. The left and upper borders feature a palm tree.
Now known almost exclusively for his fine engravings for books, Gustave Doré was in his time as well known for his paintings. This is a preparatory sketch for one of his several versions of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. This shows the conventional Christian account in the Gospels, of Christ entering Jerusalem, in triumph, on the back of a donkey, as the start (‘Palm Sunday’ because of the palm fronds usually involved) of the series of processes leading to his crucifixion. A popular biblical narrative in European painting, few finished works can match Doré’s at 6 by 10 metres size.
Palm leaves or fronds have strong associations with the Virgin Mary, and some of the early Christian martyrs. Among the strongest of those is with Saint Cecilia before she got the music.
This is the ‘Master of the Cadolzburger Altar’ (really an anonymous artist) in the altarpiece they painted for Cadolzburg in Germany between 1425-30. The left wing of the triptych shows Saint Cecilia holding her attribute of a palm frond, and a couple of floral wreaths. There’s no sign of a musical instrument at all.
The next painting is also anonymous, this time by the ‘Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece’, who is thought to have been active in Cologne, Germany, between about 1470-1510. This altarpiece was painted for the church of Saint Bartholomew in Cologne: Saint Agnes, Saint Bartholomew and Saint Cecilia, which is believed to date from 1500-05.
From the left, we have Saint Agnes bearing her palm frond, with a lamb by her feet, the miniature donor, Saint Bartholomew (patron of that church), and Saint Cecilia playing an organetto, portative or portable organ.
Jacopo Tintoretto’s portrait of Saint Mary of Egypt from 1582-83 shows a former runaway and dissolute girl who lived in Egypt, who eventually converted to Christianity and became an ascetic in the desert beyond the River Jordan. Tintoretto establishes that visually with the river beside which she is reading, and links this to The Flight into Egypt with its large palm tree, which is also a reminder of the Passion to come.
Through its signification for Egypt, thus inclusion in images of the Flight to Egypt, the palm becomes an attribute of the Virgin Mary.
The latest in Tiepolo’s series of paintings of The Immaculate Conception, from 1767-68, is his most florid. His Virgin Mary isn’t looking up to heaven, but appears to be relishing her role of vanquishing the snake of Eden. More curiously, tucked away at the foot, behind a palm tree, is a framed mirror, whose symbolism is open to speculation.
My last painting brings this subject up to the Pre-Raphaelites, and inclusion of palm fronds among their rich language of symbols.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9) contains many archaic devices, such as the gilt and lettered halos, and an oddly-proportioned angel, but shows what Rossetti envisaged might have been the pictorial reality of the Virgin Mary during her youth. She works on embroidery with her mother, Saint Anne, while her father, Saint Joachim, prunes a vine.
The abundant symbols include palm fronds on the floor (the Passion), a thorny briar rose (Christ’s suffering and death), lilies (purity), books (labelled with faith, hope, charity, fortitude, etc.), a dove (the Holy Spirit, the Annunciation), red cloth (the Passion), crosses in trellis (crucifixion), and more.
All those wonderful paintings, yet not one showing the golden sands of our tropical beach and its abundant palm trees. Perhaps that’s just a modern conception from advertising.