Standing at the center of Brittingham Gallery II in the Chazen Museum of Art is a wood sculpture, a palmesel, titled “Christ Riding a Donkey, ca. 1450.” The artist is unknown.
Its unrefined hew and tattered polychrome finish display the vintage patina that every modern “Welcome To The Cabin” sign strives for. It is 58 inches long and 62 inches tall, about 3/4 life size. The donkey is dark grey and the Christus’ robe is blood-on-brick red with gold around the neck.
Palmesels were designed to ride atop a wheeled cart in a Palm Sunday processional. Once a year, they would depict Christ’s triumphant ride into
. They were relatively common in
Western Central Europe before the Protestant Reformation, the Late
Gothic period, after which they were banned. Many were destroyed. This simple yet intriguing piece is a rare find as only a few dozen exist throughout the
Professor Frank Horlbeck of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) analyzed this figure along with fourteen others from around the world. It was brought to the UW museum in 1977 after having been purchased in
and examined in Rome. The subtitle on
the label at the time said only “Austrian, fifteenth century.”
Horlbeck determined that the wooden sculpture had its provenance in
and was possibly from the workshop of Master Leonhard Brixon, which flourished
from 1440 to 1476. The actual identity of the artist will never be known. A
project such as this, probably for a medium sized church, would have been
assigned to an apprentice woodworker.
In the 1977-78 Elvehjem Bulletin Horlbeck wrote that although this piece has some of the markings that are consistent with Brixon’s work, it was most certainly not created by the Master himself. The Christ figure, Horlbeck notes, has an expression that is “at once pensive and kindly.”
Looking directly at the face, the gaze stares blankly, slightly to its left. It is a look of recognition, without specific adoration, as if Judas was there and trouble was in the air.
The donkey’s head, back, and rump create a perfect horizontal plane. Its ears stick straight up about eight inches, as if listening its way through the crowd. The eyes scan the nearby ground. This beast of holy burden looks like it has led a life of work. Hard work. As if thinking “If this guy could really walk on water, he should be lighter.”
Thin striations of paint in various regions can be seen on the torso and parts of the donkey’s hindquarters. The robe drapes across and down the entire body. Full covering of the body is typical of Gothic period sculpture. Exposed are long, slender fingers and toes.
On top, the golden crown looks to be missing what could have been small spires or even jewels. But jewels would be too much for this simple piece. Christ’s hair and beard are composed of thickly carved strands. The hair feathers back, flowing from beneath the crown like thick brown cornrows. Sampson could only have be so lucky.
The rider’s left hand would have held leather reigns, now missing. Nails in the donkey’s head show where bridle straps had been affixed. The right hand is bent at the elbow and two fingers are raised in a peace sign. This configuration, a sign of blessing and a hand that guides, is consistent among most, if not all, palmesels.
Simple beauty, deep history, and what could be described as “folk art” style coalesce in this charming piece of pre-Renaissance iconography. Having wound its way from Western Central Europe to Midwestern America over the centuries is an impressive journey. It will no doubt continue to be appreciated by many, rejected by a few, and perhaps inspire many more artists for yet another 550 years.