Art and the Church -> Materials for Use in Churches
Palm Sunday - Palmsonntag by Anselm Kiefer
Waiting for the Rain: Anselm Kiefer’s Palmsonntag
by Jessica Morgun
Anselm Kiefer’s Palmsonntag (2007) or Palm Sunday looks as if it has been left unattended in the desert for a long, long time. A massive palm tree, preserved in resin and fiberglass, lies on its side supported by a crumbling brick wall. Large glass covered panels, displayed like the pages of an ancient text, show long-dead palm fronds, seedpods and dried roses beautifully arranged upon parched, cracked earth. The words aperiatur terra et germinet salvatorem are scrawled in handwriting against the dusty backdrop. They are the words of Isaiah 45 verse 8:
‘You heavens above, rain down righteousness;
let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide,
let salvation spring up,
let righteousness grow with it;
I, the Lord, have created it.’ (NIV)
The words ‘Palm Sunday’ are also written upon the panels in Spanish, French, Polish and German. The sequencing of these panels seems liturgical with the words ‘Palm Sunday’ interspersed with the Ave Maria and Isaiah 45:8. It is provocative that the Ave Maria and Isaiah text are not in fact part of the Palm Sunday liturgy but rather are from the Advent liturgy. Advent, the four weeks before Christmas in the Christian Calendar, is a time of waiting for Christ the Savior of the world to be born.
Before unpacking the meaning of Isaiah 45:8 in relation to the rest of Palmsonntag, it is important to note that Anselm Kiefer’s work tends to be less than straightforward. He blends myths and legends with mystic texts, difficult philosophical concepts, and even, as in the case of Palmsonntag, biblical import. Kiefer’s work is deeply layered and so we must be careful about determining the meaning of Palmsonntag too quickly before taking in all that he has given us to consider. For example, along with the liturgical texts, he also cites the twelve labors of Hercules as they appear in The Crusade of Hercules, labors performed by the mythic hero in order to obtain eternal life. The palm, it seems, is not only significant to the Christian tradition as a symbol of resurrection, but was also an ancient symbol for victory and immortality. Caesar himself would have been greeted with palm fronds returning from a successful military campaign. Seen in this light, we come to understand that the crowds who greeted Christ with palm fronds as a victorious Messiah fulfilling centuries of Jewish hopes ironically misunderstood Christ’s mission and identity. The palm for Kiefer is a multilayered symbol invoking the power of Empire, Christ’s subversion of the Jewish hope for a political Messiah, and the Christian hope for resurrection from the dead.
Palmsonntag invites us into a time of waiting and deep contemplation. The Advent texts Kiefer has scrawled upon the dry ground remind us, and perhaps warn us, that the fullness of Christ’s kingdom has not yet come. To prematurely announce the fullness of his kingdom might lead us to misunderstand Christ’s true mission and identity. Christ did not come to Jerusalem as a conquering hero. He came as Yahweh himself, humbled and emptied of his power on his way to crucifixion, to what looked like ultimate defeat.
Though the plants of Palmsonntag are indeed exquisitely arranged, there is no escaping the fact that the artist cannot bring them back to life, no matter how beautiful he might display them. We, like the long-dead seedpods of Kiefer’s desert landscape, wait for the rain. We wait for righteousness to rain down and for salvation to spring up from the soil as heaven, at last, will hold the earth in a loving embrace. But keeping Kiefer’s warning in mind, we must remember there is a long and arduous journey between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.
So we wait.
Jessica Morgun is a student at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. She is currently working on a thesis project (drawing forest fires) and researching Anselm Kiefer. She is also a practicing artist.