Palmsonntag, a deeply biblical vision

  • May 31, 2010
The beautiful installation called Palmsonntag (Palm Sunday), by German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, is the most brilliant, deeply original Christian artwork I have ever seen on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Readers interested in art should catch this show before it leaves Toronto on Aug. 1

Like some Baroque depiction of a saint’s martyrdom, Palm Sunday refers immediately to an occasion that lies largely beyond the margins of the work, in this case the liturgy for the Sunday before Easter.

On that day in the Christian calendar, the church recalls the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to observe the Passover, and marks the opening of the New Testament story that climaxes first with the catastrophe of Good Friday, then with the good news of Easter. Palm Sunday is a festival of yearning, of waiting and unknowing, of expectation coloured by both dread and uneasy hope.

Palm Sunday is also the site of a misunderstanding that modern Christians (and all political activists) would be wise to heed. The mob who hailed Jesus with palms at the city gate apparently believed that he came to overthrow Roman colonial rule, establish a new political order and put himself on the throne.

They had not heard or had not believed Jesus when he told the crowds following him (again and again) that the coming Kingdom of God would be a sacred time in which nobody would exercise sovereignty or ultimate power, and in which the last — prostitutes and street people, tax collectors and lepers — are first.

You don’t have to know, let alone believe, any of this to enjoy the artwork Palm Sunday. Kiefer’s way of working here, as always, yields up objects that give much aesthetic pleasure. There is a fallen palm tree cast in fibreglass, a symbol both of death and eternal life. There are 44 large, handsome collages, many with palm fronds slathered in plaster. But understanding all that Kiefer is up to in this piece involves some knowledge of the narratives that breathe in and around it.

Why, for example, are the mud grounds of the panels in this installation so dusty, so parched and cracked? A clue lies in the scriptural prayer, handwritten by the artist in Latin, that hovers over the surface of some rugged panels.: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above and let the skies pour down righteousness.”

Teasing out the strands of meaning that Kiefer has plaited together, we see how his multivalent, deeply biblical vision plays out in visual form: The ground is agricultural land that is thirsty for rain; it is also an oppressed nation thirsty for liberty, a world thirsty for justice and righteousness.

But this is, we remember, Palm Sunday, not Easter. There is no sign of rain on the horizon. We cry out with prayers and tears in the words of another scriptural text Kiefer has inscribed on Palmsonntag: “Let the earth open and bring forth salvation!” But nothing happens. The earth is still closed, barren, dry. The blank sky pours down neither rain nor righteousness. The kingdoms of this world (real kings and kingdoms, along with such regimes as patriarchy and militarism) remain obsessed with holding on to what they’ve got, bewitched by the illusions of power.

The Kingdom of God is coming on Palm Sunday, in other words, but is not yet here. It is in this not-yet that Kiefer’s Palmsonntag is situated, and where we find ourselves — in a concentrated image of the present world of expectation and frustration, the world we pray for daily — when viewing this remarkable work.

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