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.