Classical art used two symbols signifying victory, the palm branch and the crown of flowers or laurel leaves. In the 4th-century fresco above, the goddess Nike brings the two symbols to the winner of an athletic contest. The first picture on the right, also from the 4th century, adopts these symbols 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 second picture at right. 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 in Ravenna's Sant'Apollinare Nuovo we see a procession of martyrs on each side of the nave 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.