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Sunday 6 May 2012

Ambiguous Symbolism

Here is another photograph from my recent visit to London. This was taken in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and shows a wooden model of Jesus riding on a donkey. It was made in Southern Germany around 1480, and according to the caption “On Palm Sunday it was drawn through the streets to commemorate his triumphal entry into Jerusalem”. If I’d seen it a month ago, it might have been topical!

There is something jarringly contradictory about the juxtaposition of a donkey and the phrase “triumphal entry”. To human eyes, a donkey is a comically awkward-looking creature. Compared with a horse, camel or elephant, the sight of a grown man riding on one is anything but dignified. This isn’t just a modern perception -- even the Old Testament prophet Zechariah talks about the future Messiah “humble and riding on a donkey”.

But humble is a relative term. What if there are strict rules against riding on any kind of animal? In that case, riding on a donkey is transformed from a symbol of humility to a symbol of power (made even more powerful in light of Zechariah’s prophecy). According to Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince in The Masks of Christ, “At Passover, it was the custom to enter Jerusalem on foot as a sign of humility. The people should have been offended that he was riding into the holy city on the back of an animal. If they were happy with the arrangement, they must have recognized him as a special person to whom the usual customs no longer applied.”

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