The modern church of Gethsemane: history of a work of art

The sculptor Umberto Piroli while working at Gethsemane

The year 1921 marked the beginning of activities necessary for the construction of the new sanctuary dedicated to the Agony of Jesus in Gethsemane.

The design of the Sanctuary, together with that of the church on Mount Tabor, was entrusted to the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi.

While waiting to receive the necessary construction permit, stone quarries were acquired and extraction works were begun, while in Italy works began on the marble decorations that were not possible to carry out on site. Actual works on the Sanctuary and the adjoining monastery were carried out by Italian and local workers between 19 April 1922 and 15 June 1924.

Two types of stone were used in the construction of the church: in the interior, a gray, hard stone with rose shading from the quarries at Lifta, to the west of Jerusalem, and for the exterior rose-colored stone from quarries near Beit Safafa.

To excavate the stone Barluzzi created the first modern mechanical system using helicoidal wire, with saws to cut the slabs and mechanical lathes for the monolithic columns. Specialized workers were brought from Carrara and Pietrasanta in Italy under the direction of the sculptor Umberto Piroli, who was in charge of carrying out the marble decorations for the church, notably the capitals, cornices, architraves and lions’ heads adorning the roof gutters.

The mosaics and artistic works produced for the Sanctuary were commissioned from a range of Italian artists and firms. Much thought was given to their form, in order to assist pilgrims to enter into the feeling of Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane. Among the artists should be noted: Pietro D’Achiardi, who designed the cartoons (preliminary sketches to be copied from) for the floor mosaics, as well as those in the domes and the main apse; the painter Mario Barberis, who did the first paintings for the apses; the artist Giulio Bargellini, who produced the mosaic cartoon for the tympanum crowning the façade; and lastly the sculptor Umberto Piroli for the architectural elements.