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6. The Fourth Century Church
Like the first church at Bethany, that at Gethsemane dates back to the second half of the fourth century. On the one hand, Eusebius and the Bordeaux Pilgrim have nothing about it. On the other hand, St. Jerome and Etheria have much detail. This allows historians to determine the date of its construction fairly closely, namely, between 333 and 390. Further, taking note of the silence of St. Cyril, future bishop of Jerusalem, in his Catecheses, delivered about 347, and of the fact that the reigns of Constantine's first successors were very disturbed, scholars fix the date of the building within the time of Theodosius I (379-395). Now, it is precisely this emperor whom the Annals of Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria (10th century) credits with the construction of the Gethsemane church which "contained the tomb of Saint Mary, and which the Persians destroyed." Some authorities would see in this reference to the Tomb of the Virgin a chance remark resulting from a confusing of the church of the Agony with the nearby church of the Assumption. In Chapter V we shall return to this interpretation which would seem a little forced. Meanwhile, there is nothing against the idea that the first church of the Agony was built under Theodosius.
The rock of the AgonyAnother view of the rock of the Agony
The rock of the Agony in the Basilica at Gethsemane
The excavations have shown that the building was destroyed by fire, probably in 614 when the Persians captured Jerusalem. However, the silence of pilgrims of the 6th century is surprising. In his Life of St. Sabas, Cyril of Scythopolis makes casual mention of "Holy Gethsemane" where the goldsmith Romulus was archdeacon in 532. The history of the church remains obscure down to the time of the Crusades. While pilgrims and various documents still speak of the Garden and the site of the Prayer, St. Willibald alone, in 724-726, makes mention of a church. If the place really continued ¿o serve as a stage in the great liturgical processions, neither history nor archaeology provide data of any worth which affirm or deny the eventual rebuilding of the church. We must wait until the 12th century and the beginnings of the Frankish kingdom for reliable, harmonious testimony as to the existence of an "oratory."

Plan of the churches
Plan of the churches: in red the IV century church


Like so many churches in Palestine in Byzantine times, the Gethsemane building was in the form of a basilica with three aisles. What is distinctive about its architecture is that it provides those interested in the history of art with the oldest example known to us of a Palestine church with three apses, of which the central semi-circular one projects beyond the others. Usually, churches with three apses end with the middle one built into a rectangular mass of rock, flanked by two sacristies to the sides. The church at Bethany is the oldest known example of this latter type of building.

The dimensions of the Gethsemane church were: 251 metres long outside, by 16.35 metres wide. The aisles were probably roofed with timber and were separated one from the other by seven columns and two half columns. The central nave was slightly larger than the two side aisles taken together. The walls were 60 cm. thick, rather less than what was usual in buildings of the Byzantine period.

The fall of the land on which the church was to be erected obliged the engineers to hew out the rocky mass on the east side and to build understructures beneath the entrance-porch (atrium). Remarkably enough, they enclosed a cistern. The walls of the apses were separated from the rock face by a small drain which ran along the side walls in the form of a channel, down to the cistern in the atrium.

The columns rested on slabs of limestone, the majority of which were found still in position. Judging by the fragments which have come to light, the shafts of the columns were 51 cm. in diameter. They rested on an attic base, that is to say, one formed of a concave moulding between two circular mouldings. They were crowned by a capital in classic Corinthian style, similar to those of Bethlehem and the first church at Bethany. The acanthus leaves stood out prominently and above the spiral scrolls (volutes) some kind of design was carved, probably a cross.

In the central aisle, the excavators brought to light an isolated block of rock which projected 35 cm. above the floor. The upper portion and the sides had been shaped, especially on the east side which was semi-circular in form. Scholars have seen in the preservation of this rock an attempt to give pride of place to the very spot where the Agony took place. In any case, this rock gave evidence that the presbyterium or sanctuary proper was in the shape of a platform which took up not only the apse but an area in the central nave also. The same thing was found in the First Church at Bethany.

Remains of the Byzantine mosaic floor
enclosed within the modern mosaic floor

The floor of the Gethsemane church was paved with fine mosaics. Fragments of these have been found in the side aisles and between the columns. Those in the north nave contained traces of quicklime -- proof that they had been subjected to fierce, prolonged fire.

The panels of the mosaics showed squares in geometrical design, as also wreathes overlaid with stylized bouquets, all enclosing a central bouquet decorated with a cross. The borders were in the form of tresses and stylized flowers. These designs in blue, red, yellow and black were placed on a foundation of white cubes. The floor of the central aisle seems to have been richer still. The few fragments recovered show that it had a floral decoration, but it has not been possible to reconstruct it.

Venerated rock of the Agony


The excavations have also brought to light very fine cubes of enamel-ware and glass which must have formed part of the decoration of the walls.

Much discussion goes on concerning a block of stone coated with wash and still showing the head of an angel and part of a halo in the form of a cross ornamented with gems. Fr. Bagatti is of the opinion that, rather than having to do with the Agony,the representation is that of Christ in glory and that all must have been part of the key-stone of the apse. Actually, the picture of Christ in his majesty would refer to Jesus' coming at the last judgment, seated on a throne and surrounded by Gospel symbols. In this case, there is question of the angel of St. Matthew. As a matter of fact, the stone was found close by the apse of the church. The painting could well date back to the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century, though Fr. Bagatti would not exclude the possibility that it belongs to the Crusader period. It is now kept in the´ museum of the Flagellation, Jerusalem.


The existence of an atrium is proven by the nature of the foundations which carry the external walls of the church further out, as likewise the two rows of columns. -However, the remains of this feature are too meagre to permit a reconstruction either of the porch or of the nature of the church entrance as a whole.

The foundations and decorative mosaics belonging to some kind of annexes built onto the sides of the atrium have been found. Such structures may also have adjoined the north side of the church.


In the Diary of Etheria, the church of Gethsemane is described as already being an important stop for liturgical processions in the 5th century. Having spent a great part of the night of Holy Thursday and Good Friday on the Mount of Olives, the faithful came back down the mountain towards the city, singing hymns. "They approach the place where the Saviour prayed, as it is written in the Gospel, 'He went forward a stone's throw and prayed, etc.' On this spot there is an elegant church. The bishop and all the people enter. They recite a prayer appropriate to the place, sing a suitable hymn and read the Gospel where the Saviour said to his disciples, 'Watch so as not to enter into temptation.' They read the entire portion and say another prayer."

The place of the Agony and of The Prayer continued to serve as a halting place for the great processions made by the Jerusalem church. The Armenian Lectionary which goes back to 464-468, and a Jerusalem Processional (of which a Georgian manuscript is extant) mention the stop at Gethsemane. During this, a passage from Matthew (26 :36-56) was read. Even after the church of the Agony was destroyed, the procession came down from the Mount of Olives and made a halt at the "Holy Prostration" to listen to antiphons and the reading of a Gospel passage. However, the texts no longer make specific reference to the place itself, as formerly. The antiphons are full of allusions to the betrayal by Judas and the Gospel text makes mention of Jesus' confrontation with the Sanhedrin, and also Peter's denial (Mt 26:57-75).

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme

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