Xavier Seubert, NYC Art Museum Organize ‘Historic’ Performance of Palm Sunday Procession

Maria Hayes Friar News


Xavier Seubert provides commentary during the program at The Cloisters. (Photo courtesy of Harout Samouian)

Last weekend, several friars and Provincial staff members participated in a historic program at the largest art museum in the United States. One reported on the event.

NEW YORK — Visitors to The Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were transported back in time last weekend through an event that combined art, music and theology — one that was historic for the art museum.

Under the guidance of one of Holy Name Province’s friars, the museum hosted a reenactment of a Palm Sunday procession held in medieval France. It was the first time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 143-year history that an event reenacted the liturgical and theological context of the museum’s artwork.

The unprecedented performance was organized by Xavier Seubert, OFM, distinguished professor emeritus of art and theology at St. Bonaventure University and director of the adult education center at St. Francis Church in New York City, and Dr. Nancy Wu, museum educator at The Cloisters in northern Manhattan. It is one of two locations of the world-renown museum; the main site is on Fifth Avenue.

“Most commentators speak about the aesthetic qualities of the art, but not its theological or liturgical use,” said Xavier, who has been giving talks at the museum for 10 years and who has lived on West 31st Street since 2013. “This performance allowed us to bring those theological and liturgical elements alive in a way that we couldn’t have done otherwise. This was a historic event. The Met has never done anything like this before.”

The program, “Palm Sunday, 1190, Chartres: A Performance,” was based on a reconstruction of a Palm Sunday procession held in Chartres, France, 60 miles southwest of Paris. The performance featured chants sung by Lionheart, an ensemble known for researching and singing medieval and Renaissance music, and The Young People’s Chorus, as well as a liturgy proclaimed in Latin by Fr. John Baldovin, S.J., of Boston College, who taught several friars while he was an instructor at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

Fr. John served as celebrant during the procession. Also participating were Timothy Shreenan, OFM, director of liturgy and communications at St. Francis Church, as sub-deacon; Harout Samouian as deacon; HNP vocations administrative coordinator Benjamin Simpson and James Bernard, a member of the Province’s postulant class of 2016, as acolytes; and me as a banner bearer. HNP financial administrator Allan Von Kobs, OFM, and Flora Delizo, a sacristan for St. Francis Church, designed the costumes worn by the performers.

The two performances, held March 28 at noon and 3 p.m. at The Cloisters in Washington Heights, Manhattan, were sold out.

Performers at the Medieval Palm Sunday procession

Several of the performers, from left to right: James Bernard, John Baldovin, Benjamin Simpson, Timothy Shreenan and Maria Hayes. (Photo courtesy of James)

Planning the Event
The idea for the event arose 10 years ago, when Xavier discussed with Wu the possibility of staging a liturgical event in The Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel, a 12th century apse from a Spanish church, to show how the space was originally used. The idea resonated with Wu, who approached Xavier two years ago to discuss organizing such an event.

At first, the two planned to perform a “dry Mass” — omitting the offertory and communion — but after discussing possibilities with other medievalists, they decided to reconstruct a Palm Sunday procession instead. The Fuentidueña Chapel features several pieces of artwork that directly relate to Palm Sunday, including a lintel of a 12th-century doorway that depicts Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and a statue of a lion trampling a serpent-like dragon, symbolizing Christ’s triumph over the devil.

Much of the event was based on research from musicologist Craig Wright, a professor at Yale University, who published an article in 2000 titled “The Palm Sunday Procession in Medieval Chartres.” Using medieval manuscripts, Wright detailed aspects of the procession that took place around 1190 in Chartres.

Reenacting History
The performances on Saturday began with a 20-minute talk by Xavier, who described the context and the history of the event.

“Remembering and reenacting history involved the participants in the ultimate meaning of those historical events,” he said. “Resurrection and ascension, which are beyond time, were anchored in things that happened, such as the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the death of Jesus. Those events were believed to be the doors for humanity into the saving reality of God’s love. Centuries after the fact, believers were still entering those doors through their liturgical reenactments of what happened in the past.”

Xavier, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, described the earliest record of a Palm Sunday procession, which appears in the travel diary of a fourth-century Spanish nun, Egeria, who witnessed a procession during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She described the hymns and antiphons that were sung as the people moved from the Mount of Olives through the city to places like the Chapel of the Ascension before returning to the Mount, and the readings and prayers that accompanied the procession.

After witnessing these events, pilgrims returned to their home countries with tales of the Jerusalem liturgy, resulting in the incorporation of these reenactments into local liturgies. These reenactments spread westward to Spain and France and by the ninth century were in widespread use, according to Xavier.

“Local customs added idiosyncrasies to the reenactment and there was great diversity in how it was carried out,” he explained. “For instance, boxwood, which was indigenous to certain areas, was used instead of palm or olive branches, which were not.” Participants in Saturday’s performance also used boxwood, which is grown in the gardens there, instead of palms.

A lintel depicting Jesus's arrival in Jerusalem

A view of the lintel depicting the Entry into Jerusalem. This piece was created ca. 1175 in Tuscany, Italy, and served as the main entrance of the Church of San Leonardo al Frigido in Massa, Tuscany. (Photo courtesy of Timothy)

Comparing Chartres and Jerusalem
In his talk, Xavier mentioned the similarities between the Palm Sunday processions in Jerusalem and Chartres. Both feature stational liturgies that commemorate Jesus’s passion, death, resurrection and ascension. In Chartres, people would begin the procession in the cathedral before moving outside of the city’s walls to visit cemeteries and churches symbolizing Golgotha, the Mount of Olives and other significant places. During both processions, antiphons and responsories were sung that shared the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, and the clergy would venerate the cross. When the procession returned to the cathedral, antiphons were sung that honored Mary before the procession concluded. These three elements were included in The Cloisters procession.

The procession moved through four interconnected spaces in the building: The Fuentidueña Chapel, representing the choir of Chartres Cathedral; the Romanesque Hall, an equivalent of exiting the cathedral and moving into the city; the Langon Chapel, which symbolized the people traveling to the Abbey of Saint-Cheron, representing the Mount of Olives, and then to the cemetery adjacent to Saint-Barthélemy, representing Golgotha; and the Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert Cloister, indicating the journey between the cemetery and the city. The procession concluded in the Fuentidueña Chapel, representing the people’s return to the cathedral.


The San Damiano Cross, borrowed from St. Francis Church and decorated with boxwood. (Photo courtesy of James Bernard)

The procession at The Cloisters was led by a San Damiano cross, decorated in palms and carried by Timothy.

“The San Damiano Cross was fashioned around the year 1100, and is a crucifix that belonged to this period,” Xavier said. “The cross was perfect for our use at The Cloisters.” The cross used during the performance was borrowed from St. Francis Church on West 31st Street.

Following the cross came the book of the Gospels, carried by Br. Harout, and then a banner depicting a lion, a symbol of Christ, borne by myself. The lion banner was followed by a mock-dragon, representing evil, carried by two students from Manhattan College, and Lionheart, singing responsory and changing Terce, and the acolytes and the celebrant.

The Triumph of Christ
After the procession into the Fuentidueña Chapel, Lionheart sang Psalm 118 as Fr. John blessed the people’s boxwood branches and proclaimed the Gospel in Latin. Lionheart sang a responsory as the procession reassembled, and the cross led participants out of the Fuentidueña Chapel and into the Romanesque Hall. The clergy entered the Langon Chapel to prostrate themselves at the altar there three times. “The three prostrations would have been in honor of the Trinity, the ultimate source of redemption,” Xavier noted.

The dragon, which remained in the Romanesque Hall, then shed its tail, indicating a loss of power, and slunk to the back of the procession, staying there for the rest of the performance.

“As we hear in the Book of Revelation, ‘With his tail, he dragged a third of the stars out of the sky and threw them down to the earth,’” Xavier explained. “After the triumph of Christ in death, the devil, although still existent, functioning, and not without power, can no longer be victorious.”

An Excellent Start to Holy Week
Lionheart and the Young People’s Chorus continued to sing as the clergy traveled through the St.-Guilhem-le-Désert Cloister to the Fuentidueña Chapel. Audience members returned to their seats as Lionheart and the Young People’s Chorus sang antiphons and responsories to the Blessed Virgin before the performance ended.

“Everyone is saying we have to keep doing this, both curators at the Cloisters and liturgists who have nothing to do with the Met,” he said. “They recognize how important it is to continue to share the liturgical and theological aspects of this artwork with the people who view it.”

The performers expressed their gratitude to the organizers of this unprecedented event.

“I felt very honored to be part of this unique performance,” said Tim. “The setting of The Cloisters, the singing of the chants, and the sense of stepping back in time was quite awesome. It was actually rather jarring to come back to our 21st-century reality! This was an excellent way to begin Holy Week.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art filmed the performance and will make the video available on its website within the next few months.

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.