The Palmesel

The Palmesel (or palm donkey in German) is a half-sized figure of Christ on a ass, mounted on a wheeled platform and drawn through the streets during the Palm Sunday procession.  The Palmesel was used throughout Germany prior to the Reformation.

In the Palm procession it was customary to draw along a wheeled cart, on which was fixed a wooden stature of Christ seated on an ass.  In Biberach this cart was placed in the churchyard until after vespers on the Vigil of Palm Sunday, when it was taken in procession outside the city gates.  The Christ-figure was clad in a blue cloak, and the cart was drawn by members of the Butchers' Guild, which owned both cart and statue.  Two butchers walked before it carrying candles, followed by the two city mayors and the rest of the citizenry.  Church bells were rung and prayers said throughout the procession, which ended at a chapel outside the Obertor, where a Salve was sung.  The cart and figure were left there, and the procession returned into the town, where a sermon was given in the town church, preceded and followed by a Salve.  On the following morning, after early mass, palms were blessed at the altar, and the congregation carried them in procession to the chapel outside the city gates to lead Christ on the ass back into town.  The returning procession stopped in the churchyard, where choristers sang hymns, their arms outstretched, pointing to the Christ-figure.  The choristers then cast their surplices on the ground before the figure, and gave one another mock blows with their palms.  After another hymn, the entire congregation threw their palms down before the figure, and returned into the church where the main mass was sung, including singing one of the four Passions.  The figure on the ass remained in the churchyard all day, and after dinner many children went and played around it, while adults, 'especially the women', came to kneel before it.

(Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany, R.W. Scribner, p. 25)

Palmesel Figure, 1470-1490, German. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Palmesel Figure, 1470-1490, German. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Painted Limewood Palmesel, 15th Century, Franconia, Germany. The Cloisters.
Palm Donkey, German, late 17th c., Museum im Kornhaus, Bad Waldsee, Germany.
Palmesel, Schwaben, Ende 14. Jahrhundert; Lindenholz mit späteren Fassungen aus Veringendorf (heute zu Veringenstadt, Kreis Sigmaringen) Württembergisches Landesmuseum Stuttgart.
Christ on the Back of a Donkey, used for processions on Palm Sunday, Lower Bavaria, end of 12th century, poplarwood, newer colouring (the donkey is a modern addition by August Weißer), aus einer Kirche bei Landshut.
Palmesel aus der Stadtkirche Markgröningen, Lindenholz gefasst, um 1490. Landesmuseum Württemberg (Außenstelle Museum für Volkskultur in Württemberg, Waldenbuch).
Palmesel from last quarter of the 15th century in southern Germany. Musée national du Moyen Age.

Author: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organized the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. He is also the CEO of Three Fish Consulting, LLC, an Information Technology consultancy based in Orlando, FL. He can be reached via email at ccampbell at threefish dot co.

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