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).
At the top of the tympanum, beside the cross, there are two bronze deer. These allude to the initial verse of Psalm 42: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God”. The two sculptures, replacements for the original ones which had been stolen, were provided thanks to the generosity of a Spanish benefactor and placed in position in May 2011.
On the north and south of the tympanum, along the sides of the church, images of Mary with her suffering face and of St. Francis showing the stigmata stand out: these invite the pilgrim to meditate on Christ who bore upon himself the suffering of every man, for all time.
Visitors generally follow the path around the side of the Garden of Olives and arrive beneath the arcade in front of the church. Black and white zigzag bands on the pavement identify the location of the ancient Byzantine cistern that collected rainwater during the dry months. The same zigzag pattern is used inside the church to mark the location of the drainage channels, lying outside the Byzantine church, which transported the water collected in the impluvium to the cistern beneath the atrium.
The portal of the church
The massive entrance portal of the church, the work of the engineer Pietro Adelchi Ricci, was carried out with the economic support of Father Giovanni Gramiccia, Commissary General of the Holy Land, and donors from Naples.
It was in fact the last work of the artist, who died of illness in Amman at the age of only 30. During his residence in Jerusalem, where he was an assistant to Barluzzi, Ricci had the opportunity to study the construction of the new building and the aims of the various artists who collaborated on it.
The portal, which was executed only in 1999 and in a simpler form than called for in the original design, was modeled by the sculptor Tonnini. It represents the tree of life with four shoots enclosing the symbols of the four Evangelists. In the four scroll ornaments excerpts from the Gospels are inscribed, in Latin, recounting the agony of Jesus. At the foot of the tree the Custody’s coat of arms is chiseled, along with a cross of the Holy Land and the two arms crossed of Jesus and St. Francis, bearing on their respective palms the marks of the wounds of the Crucifixion and the stigmata.
Beyond the portal a striking olive tree in bronze, with its twisted and gnarled branches recalling the centuries-old olive trees in the sacred garden, decorates the glass inner door. The strong light of the sun filters inside the church through the leafy branches of the tree, a representation of those olive trees that were silent witnesses to the agony of the Lord.