Palm Sunday: Jerusalem, Jerusalem

LOOK: Palm Sunday by Justin O’Brien

O'Brien, Justin_Palm Sunday triptych
Justin O’Brien (Australian, 1917–1996), Palm Sunday, 1962. Oil on canvas, 45.5 × 62 cm.

This triptych (three-paneled artwork) by Australian artist Justin O’Brien portrays three scenes from the life of Christ. On the left wing is the Baptism of Christ, where he’s anointed by God’s Spirit for his messianic role, and on the right is the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, a story of miraculous abundance. The center panel shows Jesus about to enter the gates of a hilltop city representing Jerusalem. He rides a donkey and is dressed in red, the color of martyrdom. One man lays down his cloak before Jesus’s dusty path as a sign of reverence. Now the people welcome him in, but in just a few short days many will turn on him.

O’Brien grew up in a Catholic household in Sydney. In 1948–49 he visited Italy and fell in love with the work of the Proto- and Early Renaissance painters from Tuscany, like Duccio and Piero della Francesca. Most of O’Brien’s paintings are on religious subjects, despite his renunciation of Catholicism in 1954. Though he self-identified as agnostic for the second half of his life, he continued to be artistically inspired by the stories of the New Testament. He moved to Rome in 1967 and spent the remainder of his days there, returning to his home country of Australia every few years for exhibitions.  

LISTEN: “Jerusalem Interlude,” excerpted from “The Holy City” | Words by Frederick E. Weatherly, 1892 | Music by Stephen Adams (pseudonym of Michael Maybrick), 1892; arr. Noble Caine, 1946 | Performed by the Aeolians of Oakwood University on Aeolianology Acappella, vol. 2, 2015

Jerusalem, Jerusalem
Lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna to your king

This is the refrain of the Victorian choral ballad “The Holy City” by the English lawyer, author, lyricist, and broadcaster Frederick E. Weatherly (best known for writing “Danny Boy”) and his regular collaborator, the English composer Michael Maybrick, who published under the pen name Stephen Adams. The song became hugely popular in the UK and the US at the beginning of the twentieth century, and is even mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1920). It is sung by early Hollywood musical superstar Jeanette MacDonald in the 1936 film San Francisco.

Lyrics to the complete song are below, as is a video performance by the Aeolians from 2020:

Last night I lay a-sleeping
There came a dream so fair
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the temple there
I heard the children singing
And ever as they sang
Methought the voice of angels
From heav’n in answer rang

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna to your king!”

And then methought my dream was chang’d
The streets no longer rang
Hush’d were the glad Hosannas
The little children sang
The sun grew dark with mystery
The morn was cold and chill
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Hark! how the angels sing
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna to your king!”

And once again the scene was chang’d
New earth there seem’d to be
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea
The light of God was on its streets
The gates were open wide
And all who would might enter
And no one was denied
No need of moon or stars by night
Or sun to shine by day
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Sing, for the night is o’er!
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna for evermore!”

The song’s speaker has a dream about Christ’s celebrated entry into Jerusalem, with crowds surrounding him and shouting his praises. But then the mood turns dark and hushed as a cross is erected on Golgotha and the newly hailed king is crucified. However, the mood revolves back to one of celebration in the final verse as the New Jerusalem comes down, permanently displacing all sorrow, its gates thrown open wide in universal welcome and the wounded but victorious Jesus seated on the throne.

The Aeolians’ isolation of the first refrain for their “Jerusalem Interlude,” which echoes Psalm 24:7–10 [previously], makes a perfect antiphon for Palm Sunday. Though the words are exultant, the music has an aching quality that foreshadows the suffering that is soon to come and that matches the tone of Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem on this day: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41–42; cf. Matt. 23:37–39).

The American jazz composer Duke Ellington used the refrain’s melody as the basis of the opening of his “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927), in which a cornet and trombone play dolefully in parallel harmony. Can you hear the clopping donkey?

One thought on “Palm Sunday: Jerusalem, Jerusalem

  1. Thank you for spotlighting the work of Justin O’Brien. He was our painter of the most beautiful figurative religious artworks in Australia. In Melbourne, Victoria, we are blessed with an exceptional Stations of Cross suite by O’Brien created in pen & ink & watercolour, for the chapel of the Cabrini Hospital, in Malvern.


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