Classical art used two symbols signifying victory, the palm branch and the crown of flowers or laurel leaves. In the mosaic above, the figure in the diaphanous garment on the left brings these two symbols to the winner of an athletic contest. Similarly, the first picture on the left has a winged Victory with a floral crown for the victor in Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes. In the second picture, from the same century, a Christian artist uses the laurel crown and palm branch to represent Christian victory over sin and death. This adaptation of classical iconography was based on passages in Paul's epistles that compare the Christian life to a race for a prize or crown.1
In medieval and later art the palm branch became the symbol of choice for identifying martyrs, as in the third picture. In images of the martyr's death it was often paired with a crown, carried to the dying saint by winged figures comparable to the Victory of classical iconography (example). In the baroque era angels can bring the floral crown even to non-martyrs such as Teresa of Ávila (example).
In a parallel development early Christian art also conflated the crown of classical iconography 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 in Ravenna's Sant'Apollinare Nuovo bringing Christ their crowns, each crown a gold band encircled by a "wreath" of white petals. In subsequent Christian art it is common to give a female martyr a crown even if in life she had been a commoner. In late-medieval England this practice extended even to monumental brasses that middle-class families would commission for maidens who had died an early death.2
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-12-07.
Detail from the Villa Romana Coronation of the Winner mosaic (early 4th century). See the description page for the whole mosaic and a brief discussion.