Excavations in the Grotto of Gethsemane

Excavations in the Grotto of Gethsemane

October 1956 − March 1957

Following a major flood on 23 November 1955 the Custody of the Holy Land initiated restoration works in the Grotto of the Betrayal. This provided an opportunity for Father Virgilio Corbo to investigate the area, leading to a number of interesting discoveries. His studies, published in 1965, shed considerable light on the various transformations that had taken place over the centuries.

At the time of Jesus the landscape of the Mount of Olives consisted of various natural caves, keeping in mind that the adjacent Tomb of the Virgin was itself originally a cave.

The initial entrance to the Grotto was on the north wall, to the right of the present entrance, and the interior consisted of the central part of the current space together with an area where the altar is now located, along with a second smaller cave to the south that was reopened during the works. The vault of the cave was supported by four natural rock pillars, three of which still remain.

The cave was provided with a reservoir of water: a cistern located in the northwest corner, to the right of the present entrance, was linked to a smaller basin where, via a system of water channels, rainwater was collected and decanted before being stored in the cistern.

According to Father Corbo, there was an olive press in the depression to the east, where the altar is now located. The arm of the press was fixed to a hole in the wall that is still visible today. The water in the cave may also have been used to dilute the oil, allowing it to flow more easily through the collection areas. The relatively small dimensions of the area, however, raise some doubts about this hypothesis.

Beginning probably in the fourth century the cave was transformed into a rock church, and shortly thereafter began to be used for funerary purposes. An ambulatory was created along the southern and western walls, while light entered through an opening in the roof. The construction of the Church of Mary’s Tomb at the end of the fourth century blocked the original access, which was then moved towards the northwest.

Beginning in the fifth century numerous tombs were created in the interior. Arcosolium (“bench” type) tombs were also carved out of the walls of the cistern, and the floor was structured with small walls in different areas for the tombs and paved with mosaic, with an inscription to the right of the present entrance of which two words from an invocation in Greek can still be seen: KE ANAPAUS(ON), Lord, give us rest.

The burial area, created by digging through the white mosaic floor, consisted of 42 tombs from both the Byzantine and Crusader periods, which in some cases were reused on later occasions. A number of burial inscriptions were found during the works, some in Greek and others in Kufic script. The only part of the burial area that has been preserved is that of the presbytery, where today the altar is located. There are also various graffiti from Byzantine times left by the faithful on the vault of the cave.

The cave was embellished during the Crusader period with roof paintings, of which traces remain of the stars and the Gospel cycle which decorated the presbytery, as well as part of an inscription. The repeated floods and general lack of care caused significant damage over the years to the plaster. Based on the descriptions left by the pilgrim John of Würzburg and on iconographic studies, it has been hypothesized that the pictorial cycle in the presbytery, of which only traces of clothing, halos and an angel’s wing remain, originally consisted of three scenes: Christ’s prayer in the Garden, Christ with the Apostles, and the Angel comforting the Savior.

During a recent restoration of the vault, carried out on the occasion of Jubilee 2000, the plaster was cleaned and numerous graffiti left by pilgrims, both during and after the Crusader period, can now be seen above the pictures.

The present access has undergone modifications but remains essentially that created in 1655 when an opening was made between the two supporting walls of the terraces above.