On one trip to Rome, I accompanied a friend of mine, a college student at the time, to help him navigate the Eternal City’s ancient streets in search of famous works of art (he was an art history major). After a day of walking through the city center, I suggested we move across the river to have dinner in the recently-gentrified district of Trastevere. We arrived in the early evening in regione trans tyberim, though I forgot that the bars and restaurants didnt open until 7:30 pm, so to kill time, I led him to the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere where he could see even more outstanding art.
I was dumbfounded. A student of art history, about to graduate, stood stymied in the face of such obvious symbolic details. I knew he wasn’t a religious person, but given Christianity’s indelible influence on Western art, it was hard to fathom why he simply didn’t know.
In the ancient Near East, the people would cover the path of illustrious men, often with cloths or leaves, as a sign of respect, that the honored one should not dip his feet into the grime. Jehosophat received this honor in the Old Testament; Jesus received it in the Gospels. In the Graeco-Roman world, the palm branch was an attribute of Nike, goddess of victory. Roman generals who received the privilege of a triumphal procession in Urbe cast down their weapons and armor upon entering the pomerium, wearing instead the toga adorned with images of palm branches. All this information informs the Gospel narratives where we read about Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and how people laid their cloaks and branches before Jesus (John specifically identifies the branches as palms).
Jesus is therefore a triumphant king– not in the manner of the Caesars, but in a manner of the God who allows himself to be crushed for the sins of his people. We know that the true victory passes through the Cross into Resurrection; this is why, in Revelation 7, John sees the innumerable throng of martyrs, “washed clean in the blood of the lamb”, holding palm branches in their hands. The martyrs in a most profound sense have participated in the victory of Christ because they die in odium fidei as he died for us. This is the basis of an enduring iconographic tradition in both the East and West: martyrs are still depicted in art with palm leaves.
To me, one of the most moving depictions at Santa Maria in Trastevere is not a painting inside the church, but a slab of rock incorporated into the portico outside the main door. This entire area is decorated with ancient tombstones recovered from various excavations in Trastevere (this district housed one of the first Christian communities in Rome, stretching back certainly to the time of Clement I and perhaps even to Peter). Many of the tombstones accordingly date from the first century until the fourth century, when the persecutions ended. In those early times, Christians were often poor and could not afford ornate tombstones; the funerary inscriptions are crooked, broken, rife with spelling errors, and the stones themselves were jagged and irregular. You can even give approximate dates to the tombstones, based on language (earliest tombstones were in Greek) and length of the inscription (earlier tombstones often only had the name of the deceased, accompanied with a simple, single iconographic symbol, meant to be inscrutable to persecutors but intelligible to the faithful). The stone which immediately caught my eye is shown in the photo above. The inscription reads:
VALENTINO FILIO MATER
QUI VIXIT ANN[IS] XVIII
to Valentinus [my] son [whose] mother [made this]
who lived 18 years
[be now] at peace
A simple epitaph, a crown, and a palm branch– behind their crudely carved contours once rested the mortal spoils of a young martyr named “Valentine”. How tragic and yet how utterly beautiful an inscription: laconic yet eloquent, terse yet profound. Though his body has returned to dust, we can be sure that he has earned his place at the side of Christ, for by his death, he has joined his triumphal procession into the New Jerusalem. When we sing the final verses of Stabat Mater dolorosa, we too ask, by the intercession of the Virgin, that we might share Valentine’s fate, holding our own victory palms in conspectu divinae majestatis Dei, and receiving from the hand of the Chief Shepherd an unfading crown of glory.
Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriae.
Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur