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Bringing the Gospel to Life: How They Celebrated Palm Sunday in Medieval Moscow

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Bringing the Gospel to Life: How They Celebrated Palm Sunday in Medieval Moscow


Polina Skolkova

V. Schwartz. Palm Sunday in Moscow Under Aleksey Mikhailovich. Procession of the Patriarch on a Donkey, 1865.

The Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem, Fig Sunday, Flower-bearing Sunday, or just Palm Sunday—its a holiday that has been observed the week before Easter since the very first centuries of Christianity. Hardly anyone knows that in medieval Russia this holiday was celebrated with a colorful procession, involving both the tsar and the patriarch.

On Palm Sunday Christians remember an event that happened two thousand years agothe triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. In the Gospel of Matthew, this event is described in the following fashion: as he nears Jerusalem, Jesus sends his disciples to Bethphage for a donkey and her colt. “The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”(Mathew 21:1-9)

These events were reenacted during the grand ceremony referred to as the Procession Upon a Donkey.

Procession Upon a Donkey

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Moscow and several other cities in Russia celebrated Palm Sunday with a ritual that was impressive in terms of its beauty, the number of participants involved, and the scale of preparations going into it: the Procession upon a Donkey.

The Moscow ceremony was distinguished by its splendor. In this ritual the Metropolitan (or after 1589, the Patriarch) played the role of Christ seated atop the donkey, and the tsar himself would lead this donkey.

Celebrating Palm Sunday on Red Square.

Drawing from the album of the Austrian ambassador Augustin Meyerberg who was in Muscovy in 1661-1662

This ritual began in Moscow under the Metropolitan Macarius in the middle of the sixteenth century. The story of its appearance is cloudy. A similar ritual existed in Byzantium and the Near East. Nonetheless, the Byzantines found it to be incompatible with the dignity of the emperor for him to lead by the reins a horse carrying the patriarch, and so the head of state didnt take part in the procession. But then in Western Europe, the monarch (a king or emperor) could certainly have performed the service of leading the Popes horse. Evidently, the basis for this ritual was the famous medieval falsificationthe so-called Document of Pseudo-Constantine or Gift of Constantine (Donatio Constantini). Before the Renaissance no one challenged the authenticity of this document, and it suggested that Constantine the Great himself gave Pope Sylvester power over the Roman Christian church, and moreover as a sign of respect he served as his stable hand, that is, he led by the reigns a horse with the Pope sitting atop it. This act was a symbolic representation of the worldly leaders subservience to the head of the church.

In Russia, the church service that took place on Palm Sunday in Constantinople and Jerusalem was united with the service as stable hand that took place in the Westand the service as stable hand started to take place as part of the church ritual of the Procession Upon the Donkey.

What did this ceremony look like? Initially, the procession took place only with in the Kremlin, going from one cathedral to another (from Uspensky Cathedral to the Church of the Entry in Jerusalem and back). Beginning several years later and continuing until the middle of the seventeenth century, the Procession went from Uspesnky Cathedral to either Troitsky or Pokrovsky Cathedral on the Moat (known as St. Basils Cathedral), where the Lords Entry into Jerusalem would take place. After a short church service the procession would return to Uspensky Cathedral. Beginning in the time of Patriarch Nikon, the Procession upon the Donkey began at the Lobnoye Mesto platform on Red Square and went to Uspensky Cathedral. The Patriarch would walk to the Lobnoye Mesto on foot.

In order to appreciate the scale and beauty of the ceremony that took place at Red Square on Palm Sunday, lets look at the preparations for the holiday.

One of the main participants in the procession was the willow, the traditional substitute for a date palm in medieval Russia. This willow tree, decorated and holding hanging fruit, was understood as a symbol of blessing that God sent to the people. Therefore the willow was decorated with special care. For several days before the holiday a search was begun for the great willowa task entrusted to the church caretakers. They were the ones who decorated the tree, which they would lead on a festive cart during the ceremony.

The trees decoration primarily included edible vegetables, i.e. fruits: apples, raisins, wine berries (figs), dates, walnuts, and so forth. Later, they started replacing the real fruits with artificial ones. For greater extravagance, additional branches made from bundles of twigs were attached to the willow.

In 1672, on the order of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, the tree was given especially elaborate decorations in honor of the Polish ambassadors. From that time forward the willow was additionally dressed with decorative leaves (in 1697, 30 thousand (!) such leaves were made from fabric), artificial flowers, birds, and shining stars. After the celebration all of these decorations were taken down, fixed up, and preserved for the next year.

The great holiday willow was set up in a cart specially prepared for itin a sleigh or wagon (depending on the weather) that was covered with red cloth and decorated with molded metal plates. There was a place for singers near the willow. This specially prepared cart was usually carried by several horses, which were driven by coachmen dressed in festive clothes.

During the Procession upon a donkey the patriarch did not ride a donkey. One of the patriarchs horses was specially trained to play this role. The holiday decorations on the donkey were distinguished by their magnificence. The horse was covered with a specially sewn white hood with long ears, which created a certain resemblance with a donkey.

The Dutch traveler Nicolaes Witsen described the training of the donkey: Over the course of an entire month the horse was fed only once a day and taught to walk slowly along this path, step by step; for the duration of the last three days they almost didnt feed it at all so that it wouldnt soil the path it walked.

Procession of the Cross in Moscow.

Engraving from the book Description of Travels to Russia, Tatary, and Persia… by Adam Olearius. Amsterdam 1727

Another important role was that of the people who spread out their clothes when Christ entered Jerusalem. The archdeacon of the Antioch Orthodox Church, Paul of Aleppo, was in Russia from 1653-1656 and describes this part of the event thus: Beginning early in the morning they dressed up 100 adolescent children of the guardsmen, gave them 100 caftans of many-colored cloth (green, red, blue, yellow, and other colors) from the tsars coffers, as they did every year, and each of them put on a caftan and prepared for the ceremony. A military commander was entrusted with training and directing them. Most of the time there were the children of the guardsmen or young guardsmen and journeymen. The number of adolescents who took part in the procession gradually grew, and at one point it reached 1000. They spread out textiles and clothing before the procession and in return received a small reward from the patriarch or tsar.

The procession began with prayers and the reading of the Gospel. Then the patriarch brought the tsar vayibranches of date palm, willow branches, and a candle. He also gave willow branches to the tsars close relations.

Next the procession got under way. The younger ranks walked in front: the nobles, the solicitors, the cup-bearer, the sextons. Then they carried the willow in a cart. Behind the willow walked the boyars, the okolnichy (high-ranking boyars), and the Duma clerks. Then came the patriarch on the donkey, which the tsar himself led by the bridle, supported by boyars. All of this took place under unceasing holiday singing. The procession continued to Uspensky Cathedral, where, after a service, the patriarch blessed the willow and gave its branches decorated with fruits and other gifts to the participants in the ceremony. The blessed willow leaves were thought to possess healing qualities. The patriarch also gave the tsar a symbolic salary to be given out as alms.

Mortal Sin and Papal Pride

Participation in this ritual was an honored and very important matter. Whosoever does not attend this procession believes that he has committed a mortal sin and will not be admitted to heaven, observed the Swedish diplomat Peter Petreius of Erlesunda.

The German Martinus Bär, who lived in Russia at the beginning of the seventeenth century, wrote the following about the Time of Troubles, when Moscow was controlled by Poland: Upon seeing popular discontent everywhere, the [Polish] generals canceled the ceremonial procession on Palm Sunday, which is regarded as the second most important holiday after St. Nicholas Day: they were afraid that there would be certainly be a revolt at this event When they found out about the governors order not to celebrate such an important day, the mob expressed a powerful unrest and would have perished rather than endure such coercion; the peoples will had to be respected; in the tsars place, the most prominent of the Moscow boyars, Andrei Gundorov, held the reigns of the donkey. The Germans and Poles preserved calm in the capital fully armed.

Performing the Ritual of the Procession upon the Donkey during the Reign of Ivan the Terrible. Russian artistic leaflet, 1862.

Under Peter the Great this grand imperial ritual, which was beloved by the people, came to an endthe procession occurred for the last time in 1697. It also came to be seen differently. This change may be illustrated by an episode described by the Archpriest of the Arkhangelsk Church in Moscow, Pyotr Alekseev, based on the words of the privy councilor I. I. Kozlov, in a letter to Emperor Paul: At the name-day celebration for a navel captain one officer, after requesting permission from the great ruler, asked Peter the Great: Our dear ruler! What was the reason why your father, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, became so angry at Patriarch Nikon that he condemned him and sent him into exile? Peter responded that Nikon served with dedication at first and pleased my father, for which he received numerous royal favors from his highness, but then he became infected with the spirit of papal ambition. He imagined himself to be greater than the ruler, and he tried to bring the people to this same harmful opinion, especially in public ceremonies. Alekseev himself made the following commentary on this account: Is it not papal pride to make the Tsar crowned by God into ones stable boy, that is, for the Patriarch on Palm Sunday, in imitation of the inimitable Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, to ride with great pomp around the Kremlin on a royal donkey while making the ruler lead this beast in sight of innumerable people?

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