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”.