The decoration of the apse

Photos of the 1950s. The apses are decorated by paintings of Barberis

The mosaics that today decorate the apses were not carried out at the same time as those of the domes, but only several years later when, after various artistic versions had been put aside, that of Pietro D'Archiardi was chosen for the nave and those of Mario Barberis for the aisles.

The subject of the central apse was to be Christ in the olive grove at the moment of his agony, while in the apse to the right there was to be a representation of the Kiss of Judas and in the one to the left Ego Sum, the I am that Jesus declared before the guards who were seeking Jesus the Nazarene to arrest him.

To adorn the apses, which initially had no mosaics, the painter Mario Barberis produced some paintings. When the first paintings were presented at the Chancellery in Rome, the artist received a number of negative criticisms. Barberis soon thereafter replaced the initial painting for the central apse with a second version portraying the suffering Jesus looking towards heaven, with an angel kneeling to his right as he hands him the cup.

The Custody, still not convinced of the suitability of the work, gave to the Hungarian Commission, who wanted to make a contribution to the decorations at Gethsemane, the task of carrying out a new painting that for a number of years decorated the apse without, however, succeeding in harmonizing itself with the sobriety of the style envisaged by Barluzzi. The architect himself described the painting in this manner: “with its golden rays, with its dancing Angel, with the gaudy colors of its steadfast praying Christ, with its cornice more suitable as a cheap holy picture; perhaps to be praised by the simple, but certainly not suitable for refining the artistic simplicity of the faithful”.

The concept of unity of style and workmanship that Barluzzi sought to express in the churches he designed required that for Gethsemane the decorations in the apse be consistent in terms of color with the mosaics in the vaults and domes, and that they express, without any frills, the profound spirit of the mystery narrated in the Gospels. And so it was that, in the end, it was decided to give to Barluzzi himself the responsibility for choosing the work to be transformed into mosaic. For the nave he selected a mosaic cartoon by the artist Pietro D’Archiardi, who had already designed the decorations for the vaults and the floor, while for the aisles the paintings of Barberis were transformed into mosaics. The work was carried out at the end of the Second World War in the artistic laboratories at the Vatican, paid for by the Hungarian Commissariat of the Holy Land.

The decoration of the apse: yesterday and today