Gethsemane - Basilica of the Agony | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

Gethsemane - Basilica of the Agony


The term Gethsemane indicates three places hoarded by the Franciscans, which refer to the night when Jesus was betrayed: the olive grove, the Grotto of Gethsemane and the Basilica of the Agony (also called the “Church of the Nations”). Jesus prayed intensely in the olive grove before the passion, while the Grotto of Gethsemane is identified as the place where he was arrested. Commemorating the episodes that took place in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Basilica of the Agony stands today at the foot of Mount Olives.

The Mount of Olives

The “Mount of Olives”, rising to the east of Jerusalem, separates the Holy City from the Judean Desert which from here begins its descent to the Dead Sea. 
The Kidron Valley, which surrounds Jerusalem to the east, separates the Mount of Olives from the city and from the nearby Mount Zion, located further to the south, from where Jesus set off on foot after the Last Supper, crossing the Valley to reach Gethsemane.

Looking towards the north, beyond the Mount of Olives, Mount Scopus (820 m.) comes into view, today the site of Hebrew University. From the summit of the Mount of Olives one can enjoy the most evocative panorama of the Holy City, as it can be observed in its entirety from above. 

Its name, still used today, comes from the olive trees that for thousands of years have grown on the slopes of the Mount. In the Jewish tradition it is also known as the “Mount of Unction”, since the oil made from its olives was used to anoint the king and the high priests. Starting in the 12th century the Arabs called it "Jebel et-Tur", a term of Aramaic origin signifying “mount of mounts” or “holy mount”; today they simply refer to it as "et-Tur".

The Mount consists of three areas of high ground from which steep roads descend to the valley below: from the north to the south extends "Karm as-Sayyad" (“vineyard of the hunter”), reaching 818 meters of altitude; in the center is "Jebel et-Tur" (“holy mountain”) at 808 meters; and to the southwest, on the far side of the Jerusalem-Jericho road, is "Bet el Hawa" (“belly of the wind”), also known as "Mount Scandal", at 713 meters high.

The high ground played an important role in Jewish history. According to the Bible, King David, barefoot and weeping, left the city and went up the Mount of Olives to escape from his son Absalom who was conspiring against him (2 Sam 15:30); King Joshua defiled the “high places” that had been built on the Mount by King Solomon for worshipping the gods of his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 23:13).

After the first destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the Jews began to go there on pilgrimage since, according to tradition, the Glory of the God of Israel had risen from the city and stood upon the mountain which was to its east (cf. Ezekiel 11:23).

During the period of the Second Temple, bonfires at the top of the Mount announced to the Jews of the diaspora the new moon of the religious new year: a relay of lights along the heights carried the announcement to Babylonia (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 2:4). The burning of the red heifer also took place on the Mount of Olives: its ashes, mixed with water from the Gihon Spring, served to purify all those who had become impure through contact with the dead (Mishnah, Parah 3:6-7).

Following David's conquest of the city (c. 10th century BC), a number of Israelites chose to be buried along the walls of the Mount. According to the declarations of the prophets, the Mount would be the place chosen by God for the Day of Judgment and the resurrection of the righteous (Joel 3:4-5), when all the nations would be made to go down into the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Kidron Valley) (Joel 4:2) and the Lord would place his feet on the Mount, cleaving it into two parts (Zechariah 14:4). This explains why the Mount has had a strong funerary vocation. The large Jewish cemetery, which today covers a substantial part of its slopes, in the 15th century began to once again be the site of Jewish burials.

The Mount of Olives was an obligatory transit point for those who, like Jesus, the guest of Lazarus and the sisters Martha and Mary, traveled from the village of Bethany to Jerusalem: the Mount was a “sabbath day's journey” from the city, that is, the maximum distance permitted by Jewish law for traveling on a sabbath (Acts 1:12).

On the back of his donkey, in the vicinity of Bethphage and Bethany, Jesus began his messianic entry into the Holy City, acclaimed by the festive crowds (Mark 11:1-11 and par.)

The evangelist Luke, in particular, stressed Jesus' frequent visits to the Mount of Olives, where he went to pass the night and to instruct his disciples (Luke 22:39).

Jesus' customary presence on the Mount has made it into one of the most cherished places in Christianity. In memory of his passage there, since the first centuries of the Christian era various places of worship have emerged on the summit and along the slopes of the Mount. While they were destroyed on numerous occasions, during the course of the 20th century churches were reconstructed at the site of several of these.

The principal Christian memories on the Mount of Olives refer to the following events in Jesus' life:

  • the teaching of the Lord's Prayer: Eleona or the Grotto of the Lord's Prayer
  • the weeping over Jerusalem: Dominus Flevit
  • the acclamation upon his entry into the Holy City on the back of a donkey: the sanctuary of Bethphage
  • the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane followed by his capture: Church of Gethsemane, Garden of Olives, Grotto of Gethsemane
  • his Ascension into Heaven, which occurred at the summit of the mount: the Edicule of the Ascension.

Finally, at the base of the Mount are two other important Jerusalem memories, closely linked to the infant Church: the ancient Tomb of Mary, cited in the Syriac version of the "Transitus Beatae Mariae Virginis" from the 2nd century AD, and the Church of St. Stephen, built in recent times in memory of the martyrdom of the first bishop of Jerusalem who was stoned and buried, according to an ancient tradition, next to a rock at this location.

The Grotto of Gethsemane

The Grotto of Gethsemane, at the base of the Mount of Olives, is beside Mary’s Tomb. Inside, it preserves not only ancient traces of the veneration linked to the memory of the passion of Jesus, but also signs of its earlier agricultural use, perhaps as the site of an oil press. Pilgrims who visited the Grotto between the 4th and 6th centuries AD associated the site with Judas' betrayal and the arrest of Jesus. Following the destruction of the Crusader church in Gethsemane, the Grotto became the place where the three prayers of Jesus were commemorated, while tradition fixed the site of the arrest at the “Rock of the Apostles”, above the ruins of the Crusader church. Today, with the restoration of the holy places the Grotto has once again become the place in which Judas' betrayal and the arrest of Jesus are commemorated.

The Garden of Olives

The Garden of Olives preserves, according to tradition, the age-old olive trees that were present at the agony of Jesus. Within this plot of land, owned by the Franciscans since 1681, are eight of the oldest olive trees in the world, as well as others that were planted during the past century.


Church of All Nations

The Church of the Agony is also called the “Church of All Nations” but is in fact better known simply as Gethsemane. It is the sanctuary preserving the bare rock on which Jesus' agony is commemorated. The modern church, consecrated in 1924, is a masterpiece created by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi closely following the shape of the ancient Byzantine church discovered during the construction works on the new sanctuary. In fact, the current church rises above the site of the two destroyed ancient churches, the first commissioned by Theodosius during the Byzantine period and the second built by the Crusaders and dedicated to St. Saviour.

Gethsemane in the historical sources

The places linked to Jesus’ agony and arrest have been mentioned since ancient times.
In his Onomasticon (“On the Place-Names in Holy Scripture”) Eusebius referred to Gethsemane, noting that it was at the foot of the Mount of Olives and that “even today the faithful flock there to pray”. Thus, by the end of the third century the site was being visited by Christians, who made special prayers there, a phenomenon also mentioned by the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333 and by St. Cyril in 350.

The pilgrim Egeria, at the end of the 4th century, was the first to speak of a new church built on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus prayed before the Passion. This is the “elegant” church described by her in her journal along with the liturgies that were used beside the mountain beginning the afternoon of Holy Thursday: after spending the night in prayer, at sunrise on Friday the crowd of faithful descended to Gethsemane where, by the light of torches, the Gospel passage describing Jesus' arrest was read aloud.

The accounts from the end of the fourth century enable one to date the construction of the sacred building in the reign of Theodosius I (379-395 AD). The Annals of Eutychius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, written in the 10th century, confirm not only that the construction of the church was the work of Theodosius but also that it was destroyed in 614 when Chosroes II entered Jerusalem and tore down many of the churches and monasteries. Based on the same excavations which brought to light the remains of the Byzantine church, it is now clear that there was a major fire in the building which probably was the direct cause of its destruction.
The situation regarding the ruins of the church before the Crusader period remains uncertain. Worship on the site continued, as confirmed by the Georgian Lectionary (7th-8th centuries). The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (c. 758-818) mentions that Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705) wanted to remove the columns from the church of Gethsemane, presumably to make use of them in the mosque being constructed during those years in Mecca. A noble Christian dissuaded him from carrying out this plan.

Brief information is also contained in the Life of St. Sabas by Cyril of Scythopolis, which speaks of “Holy Gethsemane” where the goldsmith Romulus was archdeacon in 532. Two centuries later St. Willibald, in his Itinerarium describing his journey of 724-726, makes reference to the existence of a church. Thus there was still a church on the site, but it is likely that it was in ruins.

News from Gethsemane resumes at the beginning of the twelfth century, during the Crusader period: the Anglo-Saxon pilgrim Sæwulf (1102), the Ukrainian abbot Daniel (1106) and also the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum(“Deeds of the Franks”, c. 1100) speak of the simple oratory at Gethsemane, dedicated to St. Savior.
The Crusader reconstruction of the church began in the second half of the 12th century.

As a first step the Crusaders built the Abbey of St. Mary in the Valley of Jehoshaphat above the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. The rich abbey was left to the care of the Benedictine monks by Godfrey de Bouillon and endowed with a convent and hospital.

The rocky cave, described by the Russian abbot Daniel in 1106 as the one in which Jesus was handed over to the Jews for thirty pieces of silver, was transformed into a chapel by the Crusaders and painted with frescoes of a starry sky and scenes from the Gospels.

At the site of the oratory of St. Savior, John of Würzburg in 1165 tells of having found a new church dedicated to the Savior, with three different rocks commemorating the triple prayer of Jesus in the garden. And in 1172 the pilgrim Theodoricus recounts that Crusader architects had been involved in the construction of the Church of the Savior.

This church was the spiritual center of the Confraternity of Charity that had been founded to collect alms for the hospital of Our Lady of Josaphat [Jehoshaphat] at the abbey of the Tomb of the Virgin.

Soon thereafter the church was partially torn down by Saladin’s army, which also destroyed the abbey at the Tomb of the Virgin, as recounted by the English Cistercian abbot Rudolph: only the lower church of St. Mary in the Valley of Jehoshaphat was spared, on account of the Islamic devotion to the mother of the prophet Jesus. 

As a result of a restoration, whose existence we are aware of due to archaeological excavations, the building consecrated to the Savior continued in existence, although deprived of its wealth. Throughout the period of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond, the church remained a destination for pilgrimages, the last evidence for this coming from a Catalan pilgrim in 1323. Since that time the bare rock, which today can be seen behind the church, has been venerated with the name of “Rock of the Apostles”, in memory of the place where the disciples fell asleep during Jesus' agony.

Ancient Churches

In the autumn of 1891, due to a series of fortuitous circumstances, the walls of an apse and several mosaic fragments in thick tessera were discovered on land adjacent to the Garden of Olives.

Systematic excavations were able to begin in March 1909, carried out by fra Luc Thonessen. The results of the excavations convinced Father Orfali, the initiator of Franciscan archaeology in the Holy Land, that the remains were those of the 12th century Crusader church built on the place ascribed by tradition to the “Agony” and referred to in medieval sources as “church of the Savior” or “church of the Savior’s Prayer”.

The architect in charge of the construction works for the modern church at Gethsemane, Antonio Barluzzi, subsequently made a sensational discovery while excavating the deep foundations of the new building: two meters below the level of the medieval church were the remains of an even older church.

This was in fact the Byzantine-era church in Gethsemane described by Egeria and which she considered to be “elegant”. As a result of this discovery, and as suggested by Barluzzi himself, the Custody of the Holy Land designed the new church in Gethsemane on the basis of the older (Byzantine) church.

The Crusader church

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The imposing walls of the church, which were extraordinarily thick (2.35 meters), were covered by a layer of debris that had built up over the centuries.

Once the debris was removed the Crusader church reemerged, with its floor plan of a central nave separated from the two lateral aisles by rows of three cruciform pillars, with the nave and aisles terminating in semicircular apses. The exterior of the largest apse had a polygonal form.

The imposing walls had been nearly completely destroyed and many of its stones were probably reused in later constructions. Marks left by medieval stonecutters can still be seen on a number of the stones, marks that had been used for fitting the blocks or for identifying those who had worked at the building site or, in some cases, for indicating the quarries from which the blocks had come for purposes of making payments. The entrance door in the façade was 1.80 meters wide, and an access step was found along with part of the external pavement belonging to the church courtyard. A marble column was discovered among the debris covering the pavement of the courtyard.

The presbytery, where the altar stood, had been built in the area of the nave and extended to the center of the church. Formed by a natural platform 63 cm above the level of the floor, it was surrounded by a perimeter wall. Three steps in the nave permitted direct access to the presbytery, while additional steps on its northern and southern sides, near the apses, allowed lateral access. At the center of the presbytery the bare rock rose approximately 10 cm, carefully formed into a regular shape on its sides. Natural rock could also be seen in the north apse, while in the south apse the rock had been irregularly cut and served as a foundation for the walls of the apse.

The pillars, nearly all of which were plundered, had been of cruciform shape above a square base, with half-columns projecting on each side. From several blocks that were recovered, and from traces left in the floor during the removal of the pillars, it has been possible to deduce their original form.

A restoration, which took place at a time that cannot be identified precisely, involved a renovation of the pavement and strengthening the pillars. The pavement that has been discovered was made from stone cubes of coarse tesserae, alternating with irregular slabs of marble of various colors and dimensions; in some cases the marble fragments, coming from ancient slabs that had been reutilized, preserve traces of Greek and Arabic inscriptions or of sculptural work. During this renovation the original pavement, which had probably been entirely in the form of marble slabs, was replaced. The cruciform pillars were encased within a rough masonry structure having an octagonal form. The walls with Crusader decorations were also covered and whitewashed.

A Crusader tomb was found outside the polygonal wall of the principal apse, containing an intact ossuary. Other Christian tombs were found inside the church. In one a skeleton and a small copper cross was preserved, in another a female skeleton with rings and part of a shroud, and in a third a skeleton and a terra cotta pot.

The few architectural elements recovered from the excavations convinced Father Orfali that the pillars had supported low vaulted arches. Along with fragments of an architrave and brackets, a small column was found, leading to the conclusion that there had been mullioned windows on the façade and sides. 

The high quality of the architectural and decorative elements suggests that the Romanesque church had rich French patrons who during the Crusader period provided for the construction of the Church of the Savior. The church was the spiritual center of the Confraternity of Charity, which collected funds for the hospital of Our Lady of Josaphat adjoining the abbey of the Tomb of the Virgin.

The medieval restoration of the building, well-documented from the excavations, reveals the impoverishment of building techniques and the limited resources available for the restoration. With the defeat of the Crusaders and the abandonment of Jerusalem by the Franks, the Church of the Savior undoubtedly suffered heavy damage that, in all probability, was repaired during the restoration: despite its decline the building surived, as recounted by medieval pilgrims, at least until the beginning of the 14th century.

The Byzantine church

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In October 1919 the Custody of the Holy Land placed the first stone for the construction of the new church. A number of very particular circumstances allowed one to posit the existence of an even older structure, e.g., the rock that rose in the middle of the choir had traces of chisel marks with a different orientation from that of the Crusader church, suggesting that they had come from an earlier construction.

When the foundation works began, the excavations for the foundation of a pillar brought to light the remains of a mosaic two meters below the level of the medieval church. It was immediately decided to begin new archaeological excavations which took place from 19 April 1922 to 1924, when the new church was consecrated.

The orientation of the Byzantine church was significantly rotated towards the northeast in comparison to that of the medieval Crusader church: according to Father Vincent, who published an article on the excavations in the second volume of “Jerusalem Nouvelle”, the decision to change the orientation of the (larger) Crusader church had been determined by the slope of the rocks descending from the Mount of Olives. For the same reason, the side of the façade was supported by a series of supporting walls and a cistern was made inside the atrium, which was raised above the level of the road in front.

A natural rock formation formed the foundations of the central apse and extended to the nave. It was included in the presbytery. This rock rose 35 cm and probably was exposed to the veneration of the faithful, as a witness to Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane. The remains of the rock were discovered bearing evident traces of the veneration of pilgrims, who had taken fragments of it as a relic. The events that led to the destruction of the church also undoubtedly caused damages to this venerated rock.

The Byzantine church was of modest dimensions, measuring externally 25.50 meters by 16.35 meters, and based on the assessment of the pilgrim Egeria must have been very “elegant”. Its harmonic proportions would have provided the church with a measure of equilibrium. The thickness of the perimeter walls was also modest, approximately 60 cm. 
The interior consisted of a nave and two aisles, separated by two rows of seven columns: the width of the nave was 7.82 meters, that of the aisles 3.76 meters. All three ended in semi-circular apses.

The smooth columns of the nave were topped by Corinthian capitals with acanthus leaves that stood out prominently and probably with a cross above the volutes (spiral scrolls), in a style resembling more the Constantinan one of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than the mature Byzantine. The shafts of the columns had a diameter of 51 cm.

Externally, the side apses were contained within the straight wall, while the central one was extradosed (passing beyond the perimeter of the wall). At the rear of the church vertical walls were cut in the natural rock formation so as to set the apses apart. Along the external perimeter of the church a canal was dug to channel the waters that in winter descended to the base of the mountain. To make best use of this resource the water channels directed the water into cisterns that had been constructed in front of the façade, beneath the atrium.

The church floor was covered by splendid mosaics, which have been preserved particularly in the south aisle and between the columns. On the floor can be seen traces of a violent fire, perhaps the one that destroyed the church. Based on literary sources, scholars have been able to date the event to the year 614, when the Persians entered Jerusalem and demolished a large number of churches.

The mosaics display geometric and floral motifs: one motif with intertwined bands served as a frame for geometric squares decorated with diamonds and, in the center of the panels, a bunch of flowers decorated with a cross. The motifs, on a white background, were made using turquoise, red, yellow and black tesserae.

The few fragments of mosaics preserved in the nave display a rich floral decoration on a black background. The walls would have also been covered with mosaics, since a number of glazed mosaic tiles have been found.

In front of the building, which faces the Kidron Valley along the road running north-south, were stairs leading to the open atrium that was surrounded by porticoes supported by columns on both sides and in front of the façade. The porticoes on the two sides led to two large rooms, one to the north, the other to the south, both having floors paved with elegant mosaics. In front of the large room to the south was a smaller one with an olive press.

In the atrium and around the church several tombs were discovered while, clearly distinct from these, three special burial vaults surrounded by mosaic pavements were discovered in the north apse. In all likelihood, these latter tombs were built for three distinguished people, perhaps clerics, who were buried in a privileged position within the venerated place. In one tomb an elongated iron cross, characteristic of the Eastern liturgy, was found. It should in fact be noted that the entire area of the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley, from the Bronze Age to the present day, has been a preferred location for burial grounds.

The acquisition of Gethsemane and the Garden of the olive trees

The present Franciscan property in Gethsemane forms part of the acquisitions made by the Franciscan Custody since the 17th century.

Prior to the archaeological excavations and the construction of the church, part of the grove at Gethsemane was cultivated land where the ancient olive trees were growing, while the remainder was barren and covered with the remains of the Crusader church that had been destroyed. A column, placed above the remains of the Crusader apse, was high venerated by pilgrims: it was known to Latin pilgrims as “The Kiss of Judas” and to Easterners as “Pater Imon” (Our Father), alluding to Jesus' prayer in the garden.

Near the column was a rocky area known as the “Rock of the Apostles” which, according to tradition, was the bare stone on which the Apostles slept while Jesus, not far away, was praying.

The acquisition of the area of Gethsemane, which also included the green area on the other side of the road, along the Kidron Valley, was a long and complex operation which can be summarized in 29 dates between 9 November 1661 and March 1905 when, for 57,000 francs, the Armenians ceded the land to the south of the Garden. The properties of the Custody, both the Grotto in the possession of the Franciscans since 1361 and the garden at Gethsemane, were inscribed in the Imperial Ottoman land registry on 14 December 1903.


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The story of the acquisition of the Garden of the Olives, purchased using funds donated by two noble Catholic brothers, Paul and Jacob Grancovich from Olovo (near Sarajevo) is a very unusual one. It was possible to acquire 18 “qirats” (parcels of land) out of a total of 24. The garden had belonged to different owners but had been managed by the “wakf” of the Salahie school, an Islamic religious foundation based in the Church of St. Anne near St. Stephen’s Gate, to which since 1662 the Franciscans had been paying an annual tax to ensure that others would not buy the adjoining lands. As citizens of the Ottoman Empire, the two brothers were able to carry out the transaction, acquiring the garden for a final price of 200 piasters, although in the official purchase document the price was certified to be only 90 piasters.

Once the property had been acquired, and to protect the olive trees that according to tradition dated from the time of Jesus, in 1868 the Franciscans replaced the approximately one-meter high enclosing wall with a higher one, which was rebuilt again in 1959.

The not very simple story of the nineteenth-century wall is described in the account by Father Camillo da Rutigliano, who was at that time the Secretary of the Holy Land.

In 1872 fourteen terracotta panels made in Naples displaying the Stations of the Cross were placed around the wall, and in that same year a room was built for the Franciscan who was responsible for looking after the place and caring for the eight olive trees. In 1879, a bas-relief of Jesus Christ praying in the garden was placed outside the enclosure, the work of the Venetian artist Giovanni Torretti, donated by the Venetian family Paolucci to the then-Custos Father Cipriano. 

Through the exhibition of these works, while awaiting the reconstruction of the church, the Franciscans firmly assumed the custody of Gethsemane, thus assuring its veneration by pilgrims for the centuries to come.

The construction of the church of Gethsemane

Father Custos Ferdinando Diotallevi (1918-1924) is remembered, among other things, for the construction of the churches at Gethsemane and on Mount Tabor. The construction of the church of Gethsemane was to see the involvement of a range of figures who were active in Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century, from different religious as well as political backgrounds.

The discovery in 1891 of the ancient Crusader ruins of the Church of the Savior at Gethsemane provided the basis for the construction of a new church. The initial desire to reconstruct the church soon ran into a roadblock due to the presence on the Franciscan property of the column known as the “Kiss of Judas”, on account of which the Greek and Armenian Orthodox refused to waive their right of passage allowing Eastern Christians to pray at the site commemorating Jesus' prayer in the garden.

With the end of the period of the support of the Tsar to the Greeks, new obstacles arose to the Custody’s plan to construct a new church in Gethsemane. The first of these was the intention expressed by the archbishop of Toulouse, Mgr. Jean-Augustin Germain, to build a “French National Temple” on the Mount of Olives dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the advice of the Propaganda Fide, Custos Diotallevi wrote to the archbishop of Toulouse attempting to dissuade him from carrying out this plan, and inviting him instead to support the reconstruction of the church of Gethsemane to be carried out by the Franciscans.

Meanwhile, the Custody carried out all of the operational steps necessary for starting the project: the task of designing the new church was given to the Italian engineer and architect Antonio Barluzzi who managed, not without great effort, to obtain the permission of the Greeks to move the “Kiss of Judas” column beyond the area of the foundations of the medieval church. Despite the difficult economic situation in which the Custody found itself, the Minister General of the Order, Serafino Cimino, assured Diotallevi that there would be no lack of financial support for the construction of the new sanctuaries.

On 17 October 1919, on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Custody of the Holy Land, Cardinal Filippo Giustini, Protector of the Order of Friars Minor and papal legate in Palestine, placed the first stone for the new sanctuary in Gethsemane.

Despite the fact that Pope Benedict XV was supporting the Custody’s project, Archbishop Germain of Toulouse refused to give up on his idea of building a church on the Mount of Olives. The French government had been given the land believed to be lying above the remains of the Constantinian Church of the Eleona, the present-day Pater Noster, and this was the place where the great church was supposed to be erected, with the first stone laid on 2 January 1920. The British, the mandatory power in Palestine, did not look favorably on this French initiative that was based on the supremacy of the French protectorate over the Palestinian territories. In any event, the construction was not destined for success, and seven years later the works were definitively suspended for lack of funds.

The British Governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, did not provide any support for the Franciscan project, for reasons linked both to his Protestant faith and his aesthetic sense. On 19 July 1920 the British High Commissioner for Palestine Herbert Samuel ordered that all works be suspended. Meanwhile, the sensational discovery of the “entire foundations” of the church from the second half of the fourth century, the one seen by Egeria and destroyed by the Persians, allowed the Custody to maintain its hopes of carrying out the works to a successful conclusion. Prof. John Garstang, Director of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, issued a favorable opinion for carrying out excavations.

This discovery led to a great deal of agitation on the part of the Greeks who in October 1920, on the pretext of an opening made in the wall enclosing the Franciscan property at Gethsemane, appealed to the Mandatory Government and violent clashes ensued. The works were suspended and the awkward mediation by the Latin Patriarch was of little assistance. The Greeks asserted their right to absolute ownership of the site of Gethsemane and the future church.

A month and a half later, thanks to the diplomatic activities of the Custos, the works at Gethsemane were able to recommence. The construction of the external wall and the new door once again stirred up the Greeks who, armed with sticks, came to Gethsemane and destroyed the works that had been carried out and attempted to occupy the land. After hours of tension an accord was reached which allowed the continuation of the excavations by the Franciscans under the supervision of the Department of Antiquities.

The obstacles were slowly being removed, partly due to dissensions among the Greeks who during this period were less than unanimous in their support of their patriarch Damianos, generally considered to be too weak in terms of standing up to the British in general and, in the specific case of Gethsemane, to the Franciscans.

Permission to proceed with the new project designed by Barluzzi for the construction of the church was not received until 6 January 1922. It stipulated the eventual repositioning of the “Kiss of Judas” column along the external wall of the Franciscan property, in order to permit free access by the Orthodox faithful who came to venerate it. Over time this “right-of-way”, and other claimed rights of the Greeks to the Franciscan property, were replaced by a bilateral agreement.
In the end, and due in part to the birth of the magazine Terra Santa which spread the news about Gethsemane around the world, economic support for the project arrived from numerous Catholic countries, on account of which the church is now called the Church of All Nations. 
Thanks to the rapid work of four hundred laborers, the inauguration of the church at Gethsemane was able to take place on 15 June 1924 in front of numerous ecclesiastical and civil authorities. In order to allow Custos Diotallevi to officiate at the inauguration of the churches of Gethsemane and Tabor, his term as Custos was extended for six months beyond the six years he had already served.


The ownership of Mary’s Tomb and the Grotto of the Betrayal

UA firman (Ottoman decree) issued in 1636 declared that the Franciscans had been the owners of Mary’s Tomb since ancient times. Between 1361 and 1363, in fact, both Queen Joanna of Naples and Peter IV of Aragon had done their utmost with the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt to obtain Mary’s Tomb for the Franciscans. Their intervention had a positive result: the 1377 Statutes of the Holy Land prescribed that the Friars would each Saturday celebrate Holy Mass at the Tomb of the Virgin, celebrations also mentioned by the Italian pilgrim Giorgio di Guccio Gucci in 1384.

The possession of Mary’s Tomb by the Franciscans and their exclusive right to celebrate Holy Mass there on a daily basis was confirmed in decrees of the Ottoman sultans until 1847, but was definitively annulled several years later following a firman issued in 1853, which reflected the fact that in practice they were unable to celebrate there.

In fact, in 1757 a number of sanctuaries had already been taken over by the Greek Orthodox, among these being Mary’s Tomb, which was never returned. As a result, the Franciscan presence at the site was restricted, and the Franciscans were prevented from reestablishing their rights due to the intervention of Russia on behalf of the Greek Orthodox. 

Today the Tomb of the Virgin is under the guardianship of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox and represents, together with Bethlehem, and the churches of the Holy Sepulchre and the Ascension, the fourth Holy Place regulated by the Status Quo. The Status Quo established that the Franciscans could continue to carry out a solemn procession there only once per year, on the occasion of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the 15th of August.

In contrast to Mary’s Tomb, the Grotto of the Betrayal, located to the right of the entrance to the Tomb, has remained the property of the Franciscans. As for the Tomb, the presence of the friars dates back to the 14th century. In 1803 they obtained permission from Sultan Selim III to place a door at the entrance for which they would keep the key. This door has allowed the preservation of this place of prayer.

Excavations in the Grotto of Gethsemane

October 1956 − March 1957

Following a major flood on 23 November 1955 the Custody of the Holy Land initiated restoration works in the Grotto of the Betrayal. This provided an opportunity for Father Virgilio Corbo to investigate the area, leading to a number of interesting discoveries. His studies, published in 1965, shed considerable light on the various transformations that had taken place over the centuries.

At the time of Jesus the landscape of the Mount of Olives consisted of various natural caves, keeping in mind that the adjacent Tomb of the Virgin was itself originally a cave.

The initial entrance to the Grotto was on the north wall, to the right of the present entrance, and the interior consisted of the central part of the current space together with an area where the altar is now located, along with a second smaller cave to the south that was reopened during the works. The vault of the cave was supported by four natural rock pillars, three of which still remain.

The cave was provided with a reservoir of water: a cistern located in the northwest corner, to the right of the present entrance, was linked to a smaller basin where, via a system of water channels, rainwater was collected and decanted before being stored in the cistern.

According to Father Corbo, there was an olive press in the depression to the east, where the altar is now located. The arm of the press was fixed to a hole in the wall that is still visible today. The water in the cave may also have been used to dilute the oil, allowing it to flow more easily through the collection areas. The relatively small dimensions of the area, however, raise some doubts about this hypothesis.

Beginning probably in the fourth century the cave was transformed into a rock church, and shortly thereafter began to be used for funerary purposes. An ambulatory was created along the southern and western walls, while light entered through an opening in the roof. The construction of the Church of Mary’s Tomb at the end of the fourth century blocked the original access, which was then moved towards the northwest. 

Beginning in the fifth century numerous tombs were created in the interior. Arcosolium (“bench” type) tombs were also carved out of the walls of the cistern, and the floor was structured with small walls in different areas for the tombs and paved with mosaic, with an inscription to the right of the present entrance of which two words from an invocation in Greek can still be seen: KE ANAPAUS(ON), Lord, give us rest.

The burial area, created by digging through the white mosaic floor, consisted of 42 tombs from both the Byzantine and Crusader periods, which in some cases were reused on later occasions. A number of burial inscriptions were found during the works, some in Greek and others in Kufic script. The only part of the burial area that has been preserved is that of the presbytery, where today the altar is located. There are also various graffiti from Byzantine times left by the faithful on the vault of the cave.

The cave was embellished during the Crusader period with roof paintings, of which traces remain of the stars and the Gospel cycle which decorated the presbytery, as well as part of an inscription. The repeated floods and general lack of care caused significant damage over the years to the plaster. Based on the descriptions left by the pilgrim John of Würzburg and on iconographic studies, it has been hypothesized that the pictorial cycle in the presbytery, of which only traces of clothing, halos and an angel’s wing remain, originally consisted of three scenes: Christ’s prayer in the Garden, Christ with the Apostles, and the Angel comforting the Savior.

During a recent restoration of the vault, carried out on the occasion of Jubilee 2000, the plaster was cleaned and numerous graffiti left by pilgrims, both during and after the Crusader period, can now be seen above the pictures.

The present access has undergone modifications but remains essentially that created in 1655 when an opening was made between the two supporting walls of the terraces above.

The Garden of Olives

A belief common to many who visit the Holy Land for the first time is that the Garden of Olives is a large plot of land full of plants and flowers, immersed in the quiet of the nature, free from the confusion of the Holy City. But if during Jesus' time much of the Mount of Olives must have been covered by plants and crops, today the general situation is not exactly the same. Nonetheless, this small grove with its few age-old olive trees remains one of the natural areas most faithful to the Jerusalem of two thousand years ago. 

Jesus often retreated to these cultivated groves to pass the night and pray. And on that Thursday evening, after the last supper and before his arrest, he retired there with his disciples. As the Synoptic Gospels recount, it was there that Jesus experienced his deepest anguish, deciding to entrust himself, in total abandonment, to the will of the Father.

The Garden of Olives is located to the east of the Kidron Valley, between the path up the mountain and the busy Jericho Road. Situated at the entrance of the property that constitutes the Sanctuary of Gethsemane, the Garden occupies an area of approximately 1,200 m2. A railing allows visitors to walk around the age-old olive trees, while at the same time protecting them from the large number of visitors.

Alongside the eight oldest trees, new olive trees have been planted to replace the cypress trees and various flowering plants that in the nineteenth century supplied the floral decorations for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The old olive trees, with their hollow and twisted trunks, are more than 3 meters in diameter. The most recent studies have confirmed their excellent state of health and have dated their aerial parts from the 12th century. But the most astonishing discovery to have emerged from the investigations is that the eight olive trees are “siblings”: they have identical DNA, indicating that they came from cuttings, i.e., branches that had been pruned and then grafted, belonging to the same “mother” tree. This finding supports the idea that a particular olive tree was specifically chosen for this purpose, perhaps because it was believed to have “witnessed” the night of Jesus' agony. The oldest trees in the grove have thus arrived intact from the Crusader period, having survived the destruction of the church and the years of abandon which ended in 1681 when the Franciscan Fathers officially took possession of the grove.

The evidence of the pilgrim Giorgi Cucci is of interest in this respect: in 1384 he described the olive trees in the grove as “extremely old”, “numerous and beautiful”.

Walking along the enclosure of the grove one can also see the olive tree planted by Paul VI on 4 January 1964 during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Each year the procession on Holy Thursday departs from the Garden of Olives, led by the Franciscan Custos: at nightfall all the faithful and pilgrims come together at Gethsemane to keep vigil in prayer during the Holy Hour before heading for Gallicantu, where Jesus spent the night in prison.

A number of volunteers come from all over the world to help the friars of the Custody care for the olive trees, especially at the time of harvesting and pruning.

Façade and Portico

Above a monumental staircase rises the façade of the church, which overlooks the Kidron Valley directly across from the ancient Golden Gate that opens along the battlemented walls of Jerusalem.

The atrium (courtyard) of the church is formed by three large archways supported by pillars flanked by monolithic columns, which are decorated with Corinthian capitals evoking those of the original Byzantine church. On the cornice, near the columns, statues of the four Evangelists made by Tonnini stand out.

The attention of the visitor is drawn to the magnificent mosaic of sparkling, colored tesserae on a golden background that adorns the tympanum. The decoration, the work of Giulio Bargellini and carried out by the company Monticelli in 1930, is a hymn to Jesus, represented as the mediator between God and man. Mankind is divided into two groups: on the left are the wise who lament their limits, and on the right are the simple and the afflicted. Both groups are kneeling in prayer before Jesus who receives the pleas of all humanity with open arms and, raising his head, commends them to the Father, the beginning and end of all things. An angel to the right of Jesus receives his heart, full of suffering for humanity. Below the scene is a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews which accompanies and clarifies the theological objective of the mosaic: “PRECES SUPPLICATIONESQUE CUM CLAMORE VALIDO ET LACRYMIS OFFERENS EXAUDITUS EST PRO SUA REVERENTIA” (“He offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears and he was heard because of his reverence”; cf. Heb 5:7).

The Basilica of Gethsemane

The interior of the church, interrupted only by two rows of six rose-colored columns supporting the twelve equally sized domes of the ceiling, reproduces, albeit on a larger scale, the plan of the Theodosian basilica with its central nave and two aisles each ending in a semicircular apse.

In Barluzzi’s design, everything comes together to evoke the nighttime scene of that Thursday of Easter when, in the moonlight amidst the branches of the olive trees, Jesus endured his Agony and abandonment to the will of the Father.

The light in the church’s interior was conceived by the architect as a defining element: the internal darkness, in marked contrast to the bright light outside, was consciously created through the use of violet-colored opalescent glass in the windows along the side walls of the church. The various shades of violet filter the sunlight through the geometric tracery projecting the motif of the cross.

The nighttime setting created in the interior of the church is highlighted by the mosaics in the twelve ceiling domes where, against a deep blue background, the starry sky lights up, framed by the olive branches. At the center of each vaulted dome are various motifs evoking Jesus’ passion and death, and the coat of arms of the Custody of the Holy Land. To memorialize all of the countries that contributed to the construction of the church their national coats-of-arms have been reproduced in the domes and in the mosaics in the apse. Beginning with the apse of the aisle on the left are the emblems of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico; in the nave are those of Italy, France, Spain and the United Kingdom; and in the aisle on the right are those of Belgium, Canada, Germany and the United States. Reflecting this international collaboration, the church was given the name “Church of All Nations”. 

For decorating the floor, the architect had the modern intuition of reproducing the mosaics and plan of the ancient Theodosian basilica on which the construction of the modern church was based. The bands of gray stone follow the perimeter of the walls of the Byzantine church and are flanked by a line of black and white marble with a “zigzag” indicating the position of the drainage channels in which rainwater was conveyed to the cistern. Thanks to the fragments of mosaics uncovered in the excavations, the artist Pietro D’Achiardi was able to reconstruct the geometrical designs of the fourth century pavement: at a number of places throughout the church pieces of the original floor can be viewed through glass inserts.

While in the side aisles ancient mosaics with their geometric designs framed by intertwined ribbons have been faithfully reproduced, in the nave a new design was carried out taking into consideration the colors of the tesserae of the ancient mosaics. The new mosaics are based on traditional motifs characteristic of fourth century Byzantine art: a border consisting of spiral acanthus leaves, with flowers and birds on a black background, frames the sober central panel which presents a stylized cross bearing the so-called Constantinian monogram, the symbol used by the early Christians formed by superimposing the Greek letters X and P, “chi” and “rho”, an abbreviation for “Christós”.

On entering the church one’s attention is drawn to the scene of Jesus’ agony represented in the central apse. The work, conceived by the artist Pietro D’Achiardi, is deliberately simple with stylized forms, with the aim of helping the observer to approach the humanity of Jesus, to the sadness of the Man God who freely chose to commit himself to the will of the Father.

At the center of the scene is Jesus collapsed on the rocks that are supporting him, in the nighttime setting in the olive grove. The three Apostles, who were overcome by sleep due to their “grief”, as the Evangelist Luke recounts, can be seen not far away behind the olive trees. The dark celestial vault accentuates the nighttime atmosphere, in which the angel descending to bring comfort to Jesus shines from above. The scene portrayed is that recounted by the Evangelist Luke, and the most important verses are presented, in Latin, at the bottom of the work: “APPARUIT AUTEM ILLI ANGELUS DE COELO CONFORTANS EUM. ET FACTUS IN AGONIA PROLIXIUS ORABAT. ET FACTUS EST SUDOR EIUS SICUT GUTTAE SANGUINIS DECURRENTIS IN TERRAM” (“And an angel appeared to him from heaven, comforting him. He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground”, Luke 22:43-44). The Hungarian Commissariat paid for the cost of carrying out the mosaic, and for this reason the Hungarian national coat of arms can be seen at its base along with that of the Custody of the Holy Land. 

The mosaics in the two side apses are the work of Mario Barberis. Despite the artistic and compositional diversity of these two mosaics with respect to the one in the central apse, the use of the same range of colors, along with the nighttime setting in the olive grove, confers a significant degree of uniformity to the ensemble.

In the apse of the left-hand aisle is a representation of the kiss with which Judas betrayed Jesus, the signal that had been agreed with the guards and high priests to identify him. The betrayal, as told by Matthew and Luke, is portrayed with Jesus embraced by Judas at the center of the work, with the Apostles crowned with halos on the left and on the right the guards who are illuminated by a torch (Matt 26:39; Luke 22:48). The coat of arms of Ireland, which paid for the work, has been placed at the lower right.

In the apse of the right-hand aisle the mosaic by Barberis portrays the scene, recounted in the Gospel of John, of “Ego sum”, i.e., “I am”. Jesus’ reply to the guards who were seeking the Nazarene made them turn away and fall to the ground (John 18:6). The Apostles on the left are represented by Peter, James and John, at the moment in which Peter draws his sword ready to defend his Lord. On the right the guards appear agitated and some of them fall to the ground. At the center Jesus holds his arms open to signal his welcoming his fate and is surrounded by light signifying the power of his word which made the guards fall to the ground. Poland, which bore the costs for the work, is represented in the coat of arms at the lower right.

The centerpiece of the church is the bare rock, left exposed for veneration, a practice that was common to many Holy Places and which dates back to ancient times. Indeed, since at least the end of the 14th century pilgrims to Gethsemane have customarily prostrated themselves before the “Rock of the Apostles”, where Peter, James and John were said to have fallen asleep during Jesus' agony, and which today can still be seen outside in the area behind the church. But this type of veneration must have existed even earlier if, as now appears, in both the Byzantine and Crusader churches the bare rock had been left in view inside the building so that the faithful could touch the very stone that had witnessed Jesus' suffering and sweating of blood .

Pilgrims today are still able to touch and venerate the bare rock that can be seen in the presbytery beyond an early-Christian style balustrade separating the presbytery from the nave. The rock, which after nearly a century of homage is beginning to show traces of the veneration it has been the object of, is enclosed within a braided crown of thorns, about 30 cm high, made from wrought iron and silver and slightly inclined towards the rock. The work, by the artist Alberto Gerardi, features two dying doves in silver decorating the corners and three chalices on the three sides of the enclosure, from each one of which two doves are drinking: the symbolism of the work alludes to the Passion of Christ and his martyrdom.

In the apse is preserved natural rock, bearing antique chisel marks, on which the walls of the church rest. One can still see several of the stones from the Theodosian church, found during the archaeological excavations, which preserve traces of the ancient rainwater drainage channel: one in the apse to the right and two in the one to the left.

The remains of the Crusader church

Once through the portico of the church, on the left side can be seen the ruins of the ancient Crusader church dedicated to the Savior from the third quarter of the 12th century. These were the first remains discovered at the end of the nineteenth century and were excavated by the Franciscans beginning in 1909. The Crusader church was significantly rotated towards the south with respect to the earlier Byzantine one, and was of larger dimensions. It had a nave and two aisles, with cruciform pillars and semicircular apses. A subsequent restoration replaced the pillars with massive octagonal ones.

The excavations and subsequent construction of the modern church have led to a lowering of the levels compared to the original church: today the imposing perimeter walls can be seen but not the pavement, which was removed during the works. The rocky bench, which rises towards the apse, would have emerged from the pavement and been visible as well during the Crusader period. 

The only evidence that remains of the rich decoration that adorned the Crusader church is a fragment of a fresco showing an angel’s face, which today is preserved in the archaeological museum of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum at the Monastery of the Flagellation. The halo with a swastika that can be seen beside the angel’s face has been attributed to the figure of Christ. There are two different interpretations of the scene: that of the Agony described by Luke in which an angel appears to Jesus to comfort him, or an iconographic representation of Christ seated on the throne surrounded by the archangels.

Not all of the remains of columns and capitals scattered throughout the area belong to the Byzantine and Crusader churches of Gethsemane, as columns from the Anastasis (rotunda) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, heavily damaged and for this reason replaced during the 20th century restoration, are also preserved here.

Grotto of Gethsemane

The cave commonly known as the Grotto of Gethsemane (which in Aramaic means the place of the olive oil press) is located to the right of the Tomb of the Virgin, with its entrance at the end of a corridor. Since the fourth century, tradition has placed here the betrayal of Judas. After his agony in the Garden of Olives, Jesus came to meet the Apostles who were resting in the cave, where Judas arrived with the guards.

The Franciscans took possession of the cave in 1361 and, in contrast to the Tomb of the Virgin, have continued to be its owners to the present day. Following a flood in 1955, the Custody of the Holy Land carried out excavations directed by Father Virgilio Corbo that permitted the investigation of the structure and led to a number of interesting discoveries.

The cave, measuring approximately 19 x 10meters and 3.5 meters high, has continued to maintain a “natural” appearance despite the various transformations it has undergone. Initially it would have been used for agricultural purposes, with cisterns and drainage ditches for water and perhaps an olive press; beginning in the fourth century it became a rock church used for funerary purposes; in the Crusader period the vault of the cave was decorated with paintings of stars and scenes from the Gospels.

From the entrance, which was constructed after a flood in 1655 rendered impracticable the preceding ones, one descends several steps leading into the interior of the cave. The plastered rock, in part natural and in part artificially shaped, is supported by pillars that are also, in part, natural. On the occasion of Jubilee 2000 a restoration was undertaken of the painted vault from the Crusader era: remains of frescoes and numerous graffiti left by pilgrims can once again be seen. The three paintings enclosed in squares depicting Jesus praying in the Garden, Christ with the Apostles, and the angel comforting the Savior form part of the Crusader decoration of the vault.

An inscription in Latin consisting of three rows of capital letters in white on a red and black background is painted on the vault, to the right of the presbytery. In translation: “This is where the Holy King sweated blood. The Lord and Christ has frequently visited these places. Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.” It is likely that other such inscriptions served as separators for the different biblical scenes, and provided descriptions of them.

The fresco paintings are the work of the artist Umberto Noni. The one to the right of the altar depicts Jesus’ daily prayer with the Apostles, set in the interior of a cave like the one in Gethsemane.

Directly opposite the altar, to the left of the entrance stairs, one can see part of the ancient cistern which was initially used as a reservoir for water and later, during the Byzantine period, was transformed into a burial ground. An opening in the floor allows one to see part of the bottom of the cistern, which has been divided into at least five walled tombs. On the south wall of the cistern an arcosolium (“bench” type) tomb was made. The Byzantine entrance to the Grotto was located on this side, above the cistern. Through a quadrangular opening at the base of the wall the stairs that led to the burial ground from the northern side can be seen. In front of the Byzantine entrance to the Grotto a fragment of mosaic pavement in white tesserae has been preserved, containing a Greek funerary inscription in red tesserae with a black border, of which only the first line remains: “KE ANAPAUS(ON)”, “Lord, give us rest”.

The olive trees of Gethsemane: the latest findings

In 2009 an investigation was undertaken on the state of health of the ancient olive trees of the sacred Garden. The results of the investigation, made public in 2012, also shed light on the highly debated subject of the age of the plants.

The research was carried out by a team of experts and researchers from the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), in conjunction with a number of Italian universities, coordinated by Professors Giovanni Gianfrate and Antonio Cimato.

The studies concluded that, apart from being in very good health, the plants were approximately 900 years old, meaning that the aerial part of the olive trees, their trunks and foliage, date from the Crusader period. But the most intriguing discovery came from DNA analysis: the eight olive trees, in fact, exhibit an identical genetic profile, i.e., they belong to the same “genotype”, that of a single tree from which branches of varying thicknesses were taken to be planted in the garden.

It thus seems likely that, in addition to building the church, the Crusaders renovated the garden seeking to “multiply”, within a sacred area, a single tree, perhaps because it was ancient and venerated with regard to Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, in the same manner in which today the eight olive trees are venerated.

Due to these new findings the sacredness of the Garden has been reinforced: the olive trees are indeed witnesses of the faith rooted in the Christian community of Jerusalem that, together with countless pilgrims, never tires of announcing the Resurrection of Christ to the entire world.

Gethsemane: preserve the past and train the future

A project to preserve the Church of Gethsemane and to train the restorers and mosaic workers of tomorrow.

The project
The restoration and conservation took place through the coordination of Association pro Terra Sancta and Mosaic Center of Jericho, under the scientific supervision of a special committee of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.

The goals of the project are to:
- preserve and restore, from an architectural and artistic point of view, one of the most important of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and in all the Holy Land.
- provide training to the youth of Jerusalem through a hands-on course on restoring mosaics.
- deepen awareness among both the local population and the international community of the historical and artistic value of this Holy Site.

The scheduled activities include:
- documentation and cleaning of the mosaics on the inner vault and the outer facade of the church. 
- restoration of the roof, the floor and all of the damaged parts, inside and outside the building.
- carrying out a practical training course on mosaic restoration for the youth of Jerusalem, with the local experts of the Mosaic Center of Jericho.
- arranging activities and tours of the church for the young people in Jerusalem's schools.

With the restoration of the Church of Gethsemane, the many pilgrims coming to the Holy Land will be able to continue visiting and celebrating one of the most important Holy Site in Jerusalem. At the same time, we want to draw the local community even more into the preservation of the historical and artistic heritage of this city, training restorers and mosaic workers and deepening the link of local youth with their territory, which is so rich in history. 

Gospel according to Matthew (26:36-56)


Matthew and Mark indicate that the beginning of the drama of Jesus’ passion took place in the olive grove at Gethsemane, where the oil mill was located. Human weakness at this moment of sorrow and anguish was marked by the prayer of Jesus who three times implored the Father “to let this cup pass”: the image of the chalice recurs in the Psalms, in a figurative sense, to indicate the will of God (Ps 16:5; 23:5; 116:13) and in the Prophets, where it is associated with his wrath and justice (Isa 51:17; Ger 25:15-28; Ezek 23:32-33). 

Jesus requested the sleeping disciples to pray in order that they would not “enter into temptation”. This exhortation was also contained in the “Our Father” Prayer, so that the Father would not abandon his children at the moment of temptation, but would give them the strength to resist it. 

Matthew recounts the greeting of Judas followed by a kiss: this was a common manner of greeting among Eastern peoples and indicated a close friendship. Jesus did not shy away from this friendship, addressing Judas as “friend”. In the text of Matthew considerable space is devoted to Jesus’ reaction when one of his disciples, having drawn his sword, cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus condemns this act for two reasons: on the one hand, the exaltation of nonviolence and forgiveness, and on the other his certainty that his arrest formed part of the plan God had traced out and confided to the Scriptures of the prophets.



36  Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." 37 He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. 38 Then he said to them, "My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me." 39 He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will. 40 When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, "So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test [other translations: “enter into temptation”]. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." 42 Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, "My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!" 43 Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. 44 He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. 45 Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. 46 Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand."
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs, who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying, "The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him." 49 Immediately he went over to Jesus and said, "Hail, Rabbi!"  and he kissed him. 50 Jesus answered him, "Friend, do what you have come for." Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus put his hand to his sword, drew it, and struck the high priest's servant, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?" 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to seize me? Day after day I sat teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me. 56 But all this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled." Then all the disciples left him and fled.

New American Bible 2002

Gospel according to Mark (14:32-52)


The Evangelist Mark narrates Jesus’ night of anguish and intense prayer that led him to the complete abandonment to the will of the Father, and was followed by Judas’ betrayal. Mark emphasizes that Jesus’ prayer to the Father was full of confidence and familiarity. In the text, Jesus addresses his Father using the term “Abba”, which in Jewish tradition was never employed in encounters with God; moreover, “Abba” appears in the Gospels only in this text, thus underlining the profound intimacy between God and his son Jesus at this moment when Jesus felt his greatest need for the love of the Father. 

Mark is also the only one to include a detail that was perhaps of a personal nature: this relates to the young man who fled naked from the guards, leaving the linen cloth he had been wearing on the ground. It is possible that this was an autobiographical memory. Mark had been in Jerusalem and this very grove of Gethsemane may have belonged to his family, in which case he might well have been caught by surprise sleeping in his shelter, wearing nothing but a linen cloth.


32 Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." 33 He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. 34 Then he said to them, "My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch." 35 He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him;
36 he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will." 37 When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." 39 Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. 40 Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open and did not know what to answer him. 41 He returned a third time and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough. The hour has come. Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. 42 Get up, let us go. See, my betrayer is at hand." 
43 Then, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs who had come from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. 44 His betrayer had arranged a signal with them, saying, "The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him and lead him away securely." 45 He came and immediately went over to him and said, "Rabbi." And he kissed him. 46 At this they laid hands on him and arrested him. 47 One of the bystanders drew his sword, struck the high priest's servant, and cut off his ear. 48 Jesus said to them in reply, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs, to seize me? 49 Day after day I was with you teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me; but that the scriptures may be fulfilled." 
50 And they all left him and fled. 51 Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, 52 but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.

New American Bible 2002

Gospel according to Luke (22:39-54)


Luke is the only Evangelist to refer to the “sweating of blood” caused by the extreme anguish of Jesus who, in that moment of darkness, received from the Father the comfort of an angel. It is accepted that the physical phenomenon of hematosis can be the result of an external physical suffering, and the evangelist, who according to tradition was himself a doctor, attributes this to Jesus' agony, i.e., to his “struggle” (this being the literal meaning of “agony”, from Greek) against the “power of darkness”. The “power of darkness”, which possessed those who had come to arrest Jesus, has a double meaning, literal and biblical. Jesus suggested that his arrest would come at night, with the aid of “darkness”, in order that the crowd of the following day would be unable to intervene on his behalf. Moreover, darkness is frequently used in the Bible as a metaphor for all that is evil and touched by sin. The third evangelist is also the only one to recount Jesus’ gesture of piety towards the high priest’s servant, healing the ear that had been wounded by the sword of one of his disciples.


39 Then going out he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 When he arrived at the place he said to them, "Pray that you may not undergo the test." 41 After withdrawing about a stone's throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, 42 saying, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done." 43 And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. 44 He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground. 45 When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief. 46 He said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test." 47 While he was still speaking, a crowd approached and in front was one of the Twelve, a man named Judas. He went up to Jesus to kiss him. 48 Jesus said to him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?" 49 His disciples realized what was about to happen, and they asked, "Lord, shall we strike with a sword?" 50 And one of them struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said in reply, "Stop, no more of this!" Then he touched the servant's ear and healed him. 
52 And Jesus said to the chief priests and temple guards and elders who had come for him, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 Day after day I was with you in the temple area, and you did not seize me; but this is your hour, the time for the power of darkness." 
54 After arresting him they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest; Peter was following at a distance.

New American Bible 2002

Gospel according to John (18:1-14)


John does not present Jesus as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. The Jesus of John, through his passion, fulfills the mission that was his destiny, his death on the cross representing the glorification of it (John 12:20-33). The fourth Gospel makes no mention of the agony, while portraying a Jesus who in the Garden was not handed over by Judas but rather offered voluntarily to drink the “cup” prepared for him by the Father. In contrast with the Synoptic Gospels, he names neither the Mount of Olives nor Gethsemane, but simply refers to a garden on the other side of the Kidron Valley, which separates the heights of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives. While the other Evangelists do not specifically identify the person who cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant, John not only identifies him as Simon Peter but also specifies the name of the servant, Malchus. This act has been interpreted as Peter’s desire to leave a mark of infamy. In addition, John specifies that Jesus’ arrest was carried out by a band of soldiers, the tribune and some guards sent by the chief priests and the Pharisees, a situation more realistic than that suggested by Luke who includes the chief priests themselves among those present.


1 When he had said this, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to where there was a garden, into which he and his disciples entered. 2 Judas his betrayer also knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas got a band of soldiers and guards from the chief priests and the Pharisees and went there with lanterns, torches, and weapons. 4 Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him, went out and said to them, "Whom are you looking for?" 5 They answered him, "Jesus the Nazorean."  He said to them, "I AM." Judas his betrayer was also with them. 6 When he said to them, "I AM," they turned away and fell to the ground. 7 So he again asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" They said, "Jesus the Nazorean." 8 Jesus answered, "I told you that I AM. So if you are looking for me, let these men go."
9 This was to fulfill what he had said, "I have not lost any of those you gave me." 10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus. 11 Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?" 
12 So the band of soldiers, the tribune, and the Jewish guards seized Jesus, bound him, 13 and brought him to Annas first. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. 14 It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jews that it was better that one man should die rather than the people.

New American Bible 2002

Origin and development

In 1674 Jesus appeared to a “little woman”, Saint Marguerite Marie Alacoque (1647-1690), while she was praying. This was not the first time that Christ had manifested himself, showing her his Heart. On this occasion Jesus asked her to make a “Holy Hour” of reparation each Thursday evening from eleven to midnight. In this hour she came to share with him the sadness which he experienced in Gethsemane.

The diffusion of this pious practice throughout the Catholic world was very closely linked to the favor in which the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was viewed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Holy Hour was based on three principal elements taken from the memoirs of Marguerite Marie: prayer of reparation, union with the suffering Jesus at Gethsemane, and acts of humiliation.

In May 1930 the first centennial of the institution of Holy Hour was celebrated at Paray-Le-Monial in France. At the invitation of the Archconfraternity of the Holy Hour, the entire Catholic world came together to celebrate Holy Hour.

Father Custos Aurelio Marotta arranged that in Gethsemane, the place where Jesus suffered the Holy Hour, the pious practice would be celebrated during the night. Three years later on the Thursday prior to Holy Week, 6 April 1933, before the Stone of Agony in the Church of Gethsemane, Father Custos Nazareno Jacopozzi canonically erected the Confraternity of the Holy Hour, affiliated to the mother one in Paray-Le-Monial. 

The Confraternity received numerous inscriptions from all over the world (in a single year 21,500 were received, and by the end of the third year the total was 92,482). Those who enrolled were called upon to carry out Holy Hour each Thursday in the afternoon or evening, a practice which would receive a plenary indulgence. Also, the sung Mass celebrated by the Franciscan friars each Thursday was for the souls of those who had enrolled in the confraternity.

Today the practice of Holy Hour before the Stone of Agony takes place the first Thursday of each month as a direct continuation of the Mass at 16.00. In addition, all pilgrims who request it are given the possibility to celebrate Holy Hour at Gethsemane during their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Holy Hour on Thursday of Easter Week

Each year on the evening of Holy Thursday the Franciscan community joins together with all the faithful who come to Jerusalem for Easter “to watch and pray” for an hour along with Jesus.

The Gospel passages are read aloud in Arabic, Hebrew, German, English, Spanish, Italian and numerous other languages at the very spot where Jesus, before his arrest, sweated blood and abandoned himself to the will of the Father and to his fate of suffering and humiliation.

The celebration recalls the three principal moments of the Passion:

  • Jesus’ foretelling of Peter’s denial (Matt 26:30-35; Mark 14:26-31; Luke 22:31-37);
  • The agony of Christ and his prayer in the Garden of Olives (Luke 22:39-46; Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42);
  • The arrest by the guards (Matt 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-54).

At the beginning of Holy Hour the Father Custos sprinkles red rose petals on the bare rock exposed in front of the altar and bends forward to kiss it. The petals recall the drops of blood that the Lord sweated on that night. The reading of the Gospel passages is accompanied by several psalms and prayers. The three moments are separated by brief intervals of silence and personal prayer. At the end of the celebrations all the faithful bow down to touch and kiss the venerated rock, before beginning a torchlight procession along the Kidron Valley towards the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, the place where the house of the high priest Caiaphas stood and where Jesus was brought to pass the night in prison.

vista romitaggio

The Hermitage of Gethsemane provides possibility for private prayers in a solitary retreat, following Jesus’ example, who on the night in the Gethsemane Garden, right here, stayed all alone in private solitude with the Father.

Based on the comprehension of this holy place, we strongly encourage every pilgrim that visits the Garden to have the greatest respect and understanding for the Hermitage, ensuring an atmosphere of silence and peace, so that everyone can encounter our Lord, who wants to talk to his children. Please note that the Hermitage was exclusively put together and established with the intention of providing a solitary retreat for private prayers and solitude.

It was never intended to be a tourist resort or attraction, and does not provide accommodation for tourists visiting the Holy Land. 

The Hermitage welcomes everyone: men, women, priests, religious and lay persons, respecting each member’s vocation and spiritual path.

Opening and closing times of the Sanctuary of Gethsemane:
Summer (April-September): 8.00 – 18.00
Winter (October-March): 8.00 – 17.00

Opening and closing times of the Grotto of Gethsemane:
Summer (April-September): 8.00 – 12.00 / 14.30 – 17.00 
Winter (October-March): 8.00 – 12.00 / 14.30 – 17.00
Note: the Grotto of Gethsemane closes at 16.00 on Thursdays and Sundays

Conventual Masses:
Each day at 6:00 (in italian), sunday at 7:00.
Each Thursday at 16.00 (in Italian).
Sunday Mass is followed by the Eucharistic adoration.

Holy Hour officiated:
From monday to saturday at 20:00-21:00 - International Holy Hour - Reservations are required at Franciscan Pilgrims' Office - FPO.
The first Thursday of each month at 20.30 with procession arount the Holy Orto.

Feasts and Celebrations during the year:
Lenten Season:Second week of Lent – Pilgrimage with Solemn Mass
Holy Week: Wednesday – Solemn Mass with singing of the Passion; Thursday – Holy Hour
Solemnity of the Precious Blood of Jesus – 1 July
Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary– 14/15 August

Reservations are required for all forms of celebration at the places and can be made through: 
Franciscan Pilgrims' Office - FPO
tel: +972 2 6272697 E-mail:
Catholic groups can celebrate Holy Mass at the following times:
morning: 8.00 – 9.00 – 10.00 – 11.00 
afternoon: 15.00 – 16.00 (winter) 17.00 (summer)

Sunday and feasts:
morning: 9:00 - 10:00 - 11:00
afternoon: 15:00 (winter - summer).

The Holy Hour is bookable daily, except for Sundays but only at 20.00

Service in the places of the Sanctuary has been entrusted to the Franciscan Community of Gethsemane; a friar is always present in the Sanctuary to welcome pilgrims and to listen to them. A priest is always available for the Sacrament of the Reconciliation.

The Hermitage, situated adjacent to the church, is the expression of the community of Gethsemane. Immersed in a large garden it offers the possibility to pray in solitude, following the example of Jesus, for a longer period. For information and reservations please contact:

91190 Jerusalem – Israel
Tel. +972 - 2 - 6266444
Fax +972 - 2 - 6261515

Tel. +972 - 2 - 6266430
Fax +972 - 2 - 6260394 
web page romitaggio

The Holy Places at Gethsemane are open to everyone. In view of the importance of the sanctuaries, respect and silence are requested, and all explanations connected with the visit should take place outside the sanctuaries.