Icons of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem are usually distinguished by a very triumphal and festive quality, in keeping with the character of the festival itself, which breaks through the stern and collected mood of the Great Lent and is thus a foretaste of Easter joy. The cheerful appearance of Jerusalem, often red or white, the bright colours of cloaks spread on the road of the procession give the icon a festive look.
The group of Apostles and the welcoming crowd, each welded into one collective figure, with the majestic Saviour between them, give the composition a strict equilibrium. The static character of the crowd, emphasized by the sheer wall of the city, the flowing lines of the mountain and the tree which seem to repeat the movement of the Lord and the Apostles and merge into them, give great life to the whole composition. The immediate cause of the public celebration which accompanied the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem was, according to the Gospel of St. John, the raising of Lazarus, when "much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him" (John XII, 12, 13).
A palm branch is a symbol of joy and feasting. The Jews used them to welcome people of high rank; as a symbol of valour it was also given to reward conquerors. So the crowd gathered at the city gates with palm branches in their hands to welcome the Lord riding a donkey as the Conqueror of death. The Saviour rides sideways, his head slightly turned either towards the Apostles walking behind him, or towards Jerusalem, while His right hand either blesses or points to the crowd and the city. As a rule children play a great part in icons of the Entry into Jerusalem. Usually they are cutting branches while they sit in the tree, spread garments in the Saviour's way and, together with the adults, welcome Him with palm branches in their hands. Although it is hard to imagine a crowd without children, especially on a feast day, the Evangelists do not mention their presence. Describing the entry into Jerusalem they say that "a very great multitude spread their garments in the way." (Matt XXI, 8), but do not say they were children. Yet on the icons we see that only children and not adults are spreading garments.
The Evangelist Matthew, mentioning the children who welcomed the Lord after His entry into Jerusalem, when He drove the traders out of the temple and cured the sick, explains their role by the words of the Saviour Himself "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou perfected praise" (Ps. Viii,3). On the basis of Tradition the Church ascribes to them the same role at the entry itself. This role is emphasised both by the icons and the divine service of the day which gives it the deepest meaning and significance. The solemn entry into Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the prophecy speaking of Christ as of a coming King. "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; proclaim it aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King is coming to thee, just, and a Saviour; he is meek and riding on an ass, and a young foal" (Zech. Ix,9). For the Jews it is something hard to understand: welcoming the mighty Conqueror of death, "Jesus the Prophet", they expected Him to fulfil the prophecies by establishing the Kingdom of Israel upon earth, that is, victory over enemies through their physical annihilation. Actually the reverse was the case: victory over the enemies of Israel was being prepared through their spiritual salvation. Readings on the day of the feast from the Old and New Testaments set right this misunderstanding: they do more—they give warning against it. Thus, after reading prophecies about Christ as a coming King at Vespers, at Matins the Gospel of Matthew is read where the true meaning of the prophecies is revealed by the Words of the Saviour Himself, "All things are delivered unto me of my Father…", that is, absolute power. There follows an explanation of the meaning of this power (revelation of the Father) and its true nature: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matt. xi, 27-30). During the Liturgy the Gospel of St. John is read—the symbolical preparation of the Saviour for burial (Mary anointing His feet with ointment) and the description of His entry into Jerusalem (John xii, 1-18).
In this way the meaning of the event is gradually unfolded. The Jews who greeted the Saviour with palm branches in their hands did not receive what they expected and renounced what was offered them and a few days later were crying to Pilate "Crucify him!" Therefore the gladness and rejoicing of children who welcomed the Saviour with no ulterior motive, with no thought of gain or earthly power is opposed in the service of that day to the rejoicing of "the Jewish crowd" which expected earthly power. ("…And the children sang Thy praises, while the Jews lawlessly reviled Thee…"---"O evil and adulterous crowd which hath not kept faith with thy husband, why dost thou keep the covenant which thou wilt not inherit;…Be thou shamed by thy children who sing, 'Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord".") In icons this idea is transmitted not only by the welcome of the children with palm branches in their hands, but especially by the spreading of garments.
The spreading of garments, according to the Bible (4 Kings ix,13), is the attribute of an anointed king. And since the Saviour is the Anointed whose "kingdom is not of this world" (John xviii, 36) the garments are spread before Him by children instead of by adults, who welcomed Him as the Anointed One for the earthly kingdom. Thus the solemn Entry into Jerusalem, which is at the same time the Journey of the Saviour towards voluntary passion and death, is an image of the installation of the King of Glory in His Kingdom. Jerusalem itself is the image of the blessed Kingdom of God, the heavenly Jerusalem. This is why it is represented on the icon as so festive and attired.