Classical art used two symbols signifying victory, the palm branch and the floral crown. In the mosaic above, the figure in the diaphanous garment on the left brings these two symbols to the winner of an athletic contest that included a foot-race and other events. The first image on the left has a winged Victory preparing to present a floral crown to the victor in the story of the Seven Against Thebes. The second image on the left is a detail from a sarcophagus: a winged Victory with a palm branch among other symbols representing a successful passage to the afterlife.
Christian art adopted these two symbols to represent the martyr's victory in passing through torments to the blessed life in Heaven. This adaptation of classical iconography was surely influenced by the recurrent metaphor in Paul's epistles comparing the hardships of the Christian life to a race for a prize or crown.1
In the early Christian centuries the floral crown of classical practice to which Paul refers his readers was conflated with the golden crowns that the twenty-four elders throw down before the throne in Revelation 4:10. Thus we see a procession of martyrs bringing their golden crowns to Christ in Ravenna's Sant'Apollinare Nuovo.
In later centuries the palm branch became the more typical symbol of martyrdom, as in the third picture at right. In Counter-Reformation and later art we also find angels bringing the palm branch and crown to the scene of a saint's martyrdom, for example in Caravaggio's Death of Matthew and Veronese's Martyrdom of St. Justina. This device may have been influenced by exposure to classical works; it is certainly consonant with the exuberant spirit of Catholic art of the time.
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University