Palm-tree, Christian Symbolism of
Palm-Tree, Christian Symbolism Of.
1. The palm has been among all nations a symbol of victory: "What is signified by the palm," says St. Gregory the Great (Homily on Ezechiel 2:17), "except the reward of victory?" The primitive Church used it to express the triumph of the Christian over death through the resurrection. "The just shall flourish as the palm" (Ps 91:13), over the world, the flesh, and the devil, by the general exercise of the Christian virtues. The palm is the symbol of those conflicts which are carried on between the flesh and the spirit (Origen, in Joan. xxi; Ambrose, in Luc. vii).
On the tombs the palm is generally accompanied by the monogram of Christ, signifying that every victory of the Christian is due to this divine name and sign, "By this conquer." This intention' appears very evident when, as in the present instance (Bosio, p. 436), the monogram is surrounded by palms. Perhaps the same signification should be given to the palm joined to the figure of the Good Shepherd, or to the crook which is its hieroglyphic sign, to the fish (Perret, IV, 16:3,10, 49), or to any other symbolical figure of the Savior. When engraved upon portable articles, as upon jewels (Perret, ibid. and 13, 25, etc.), the palm seems to express, not only victory already gained, but victory in anticipation; it should therefore serve to encourage the Christain yet battling with the world, as it places before his eyes the reward which awaits the victor.
2. But the palm is especially the symbol of martyrdom; for to the early Christian death was victory; therefore we conquer when we fall, says Tertullian (Apol. 1); and as St. Gregory appositely remarks (l.c.), "it is concerning those who have vanquished the old enemy in the combat of martyrdom, and who now rejoice at their victory over the world, that it is written, 'They have palms in their hands'" (Re 7:9). The palm of martyrdom has also become, in the language of the Church, a classical and sacramental expression. In the diptychs, the acts of the martyrs, and the martyrologies, we read: "He has received the palm of martyrdom — he has been crowned with the palm of the martyrs" (Cassiodorus, De Persecut. Vandal. apud Ruin. 15:73). St. Agatha replied to the tyrant, "If you do not rend my body upon the rack, my soul cannot enter the paradise of God with the palm of martyrdom." Thus it has become the custom to paint martyrs with a palm in their hands; and the symbol is so common that no one can misunderstand it. "To the people the palm signifies that the valiant athletes have gained the victory" (Cassiodorus, Variar. 1:28). Each of them, says Bellarmine (De Eccl. Triumph. 11:10), is represented with the special instrument of his torture; the attribute common to all is the palm. In the mosaic of St. Praxedus (Ciampini, Vet. Mo N.T. xi, tab. xlv), on every side of the great arch are seen, exactly according to the Apocalypse (Re 7:9), a vast multitude of persons, the great multitude whom no man can number, having palms in their hands. Other mosaics have two palm-trees spanning the whole picture, and bearing fruits which are the emblem of the martyr's rewards. This symbol had previously been used in the Catacombs. On all the monuments representing our Lord between St. Peter and St. Paul, the palm-tree is generally surmounted by a phoenix, a double symbol of the resurrection given to the apostle to the Gentiles, because he was the first and most zealous preacher of this consoling doctrine.
3. The palm is doubtless often found upon the tombs of faithful ones who were not martyrs; some of these bear dates earlier than those of the persecutions (Aringhi, 2:639). It had become such a common ornament that moulds were made of it in baked clay (D'Agincourt, Terres cuites, 34:5), which were used as an expeditious means of stamping the form of a palm upon the fresh lime of the loculi, a very useful expedient in the extreme haste which, in times of persecution, was necessary in such clandestine burials.
Be this as it may, it was none the less certain that the palm was frequently used as a symbol of martyrdom. There were palms upon the tomb of Caius, both a pope and a martyr. They were also on those of the martyrs Tiburtius, Valerians, Maximianus, found in the confession of Cecil (Aringhi, 2:642); the titulus of the young martyr FILUMENA shows a palm among the instruments of torture (Perret, V, 42:3); there are several other examples found in Boldetti (p. 233). It seems difficult to mistake the indications of martyrdom on one sepulchral stone (Perret, V, 37:120), where the deceased is represented as standing with a palm in the left hand and a crown in the right, a cartouch in front bearing the inscription, (I)NOCENTINA DVLCIS FI(LIA). A similar intention may be found in the palms which are traced upon the stucco enveloping vases of blood (Bottari, tab. cci sq.), and in those which decorate the disk of some lamps which were-burned before the tombs of martyrs (Bartoli, Aut. lucern. pt. 3, tab. 22).
But while it is established that the palm is common to all Christian sepulchres, it follows that it is not a certain sign of martyrdom, at least when it is not joined to other symbols which are recognised as certain, such as inscriptions expressing a violent death, the instruments of martyrdom, — or vases or cloths stained with blood. Papebroch and Mabillon were of the opinion that these two symbols should be taken together, so that the palm alone, without the vase of blood, was not a sufficient proof of martyrdom. Boldetti holds that they should be taken separately, as having the same value. Notwithstanding this declaration, Fabretti excludes the palm, and affirms that, in the recognition of holy bodies, it is founded only upon the vase of blood. After this, Muratori (Antiq. med. oev. dissert. lvii) shows that the palm alone is not sufficient proof of martyrdom. Lastly, Benedict XIV (De Beatif. et Can. IV, 2:28), while he cites the degree, declares nevertheless "that in the practice of those who superintend the excavation of cemeteries, the only ground on which it rests is, not the palm, but the vase stained with blood."