My Palmesel

A Palmesel by Christophorus Langeisen, carved in lindenwood, 1480-90, Ulm, Germany

During this Lenten season, I’ve become attached to a sculpture located in one of the DIA’s medieval galleries. It’s what late Gothic artists termed a Palmesel, a German word meaning Christ entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
According to my limited research, there’s no singular word for Palmesel in any other language. German craftsmen extracted the meaning from Zechariah 9:9 as they imagined Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, carried upon a donkey.
As this sacred day approaches, I think of these early Renaissance sculptors who lived in Ulm, Germany. I imagine their thriving workshop, chips of lindenwood flying from their awls and piling upon the floor. I hear their banter as they work—hammers thumping in competition of a patron. I smell the brew as they lift their steins to quench their thirst.
The Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Volume XXXVIII, Number 3, 1957-58, states these statues were created between 1480-90 ,“to be borne through the town streets in Palm Sunday liturgical processions.”
Then came the Reformation. Many Palmesels met their demise.
Today, only two Christ and donkey sculptures reside in the United States. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City owns the other. It is “one of about sixty such groups still preserved.”
I wonder how Mrs. Lillian Henkel Haass came to own Christophorus Langeisen’s Palmesel, and am glad she presented it to the DIA. With missing fingers, Jesus lifts his right hand in benediction. His worm-etched face is solemn and resolved. A brace secures the donkey’s submissive head to its body.
 True, the glass-encased sculpture is crude. Yet I weep at its beauty, the miracle of it. It is not the real Jesus and donkey, and is no longer pulled through a town on streets strewn with palm branches, flanked by worshipers.
Much more, its power rolls through the chambers of my heart, speaks of my Savior’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
Dear Reader, Herr Langeisen’s passion and mine are one.

My Palmesel

I awoke that bitter night,
a whisper from Zaharias in my ear.
Behold the king cometh unto thee.
I cursed and buried my face in warmth
my sheep provided. “Go away! I have no
mark of magnificence amongst my fellows.
They mock my lindenwood, rasp, and hammer.”

He is just, and having salvation.
“Bah! You have said this before. I see no justice,
no redemption. What do you want of me? I am no
Michelangelo. I am Christophorus Langeisen. This is Ulm.
Leave Germany. Go to Rome. Speak to her master. Rumor
says the Pope harangues the painter from the Chapel’s floor.”
Lowly and riding upon an ass.

I casted off my blanket—
shielded my eyes from the first beam
of sunrise, wept as the scent of lavender
soothed my troubled mind.
And upon a colt, the foal of an ass.
“Yes, my Christ and donkey are the least,
yet, they are what my Lord has given.”

Bandages unwound, I dressed and took up my awl.