* The Garden
* The Rock
* IV century
9. The Grotto of the Betrayal
accord with the Gospel narratives, pilgrims of the 4th-6th centuries venerated
the agony of Jesus and his arrest in two different places. Though the tradition
has been somewhat complicated by additions, especially by a new localization of
the spot where the Agony took place, the faithful have always kept up the
distinction. To be sure, the testimony of pilgrims, which is the basic source
of all our information, is not always outstanding for its clarity or precision.
They often confine themselves to a few remarks or reminiscences, disregard what
we today would consider essential, linger over "miraculous" details or
happenings, or give themselves over to pious reflections written down too
tardily, sometimes at third hand, all of which makes analysis difficult for us.
Nevertheless, while making due exception for certain details and some doubtful
texts, we can gather from a reading of these accounts that there was a constant
distinction between the "Garden" described in our Chapter II and the Grotto.
The grotto of the betrayal
The Literary Sources
we have seen, the 4th century tradition localized the place of the betrayal to
the left of the pathway which linked the city of Jerusalem to the Mount of
Olives. While the Bordeaux Pilgrim associates the episode with a rock, visitors
of later times speak of a grotto. From a reconstruction of the happenings on
the night of the betrayal, we can take it that it was to the grotto where Jesus
had previously left the eight apostles that he made his way in company with
Peter, James and John. This was just before he went to meet Judas
Whatever actually occurred, pilgrims were accustomed to visit the church of the
Assumption, where the Virgin's tomb was to be found, and then repair to the
Grotto of the Betrayal before going on to venerate the Agony of Jesus in the
Garden. Then they ascended the Mount of Olives.
These localizations held until the 14th century. Then there occurred a
reversal, at least in so far as Western pilgrims were concerned. This obtained
right up till the time when the ancient churches of the Agony were excavated
and it resulted in the grotto being given the wrong name, "Grotto of the
The first document to situate the Agony in this grotto is the report by the
German Dominican, Wilhelm von Boldensele (1333). After a period of [differences
and uncertainties, when pilgrims even made a distinction between Jesus' third
prayer and the first two, Western Christians in the 16th century ended by
identifying the grotto with the place of the three prayers.
Following this location, the betrayal by Judas and the arrest of Jesus were
sited near the "Rock of the Apostles," while the spot where the eight apostles
sheltered was fixed lower down the valley.
Seeing that Eastern Christians have always held to the primitive tradition
regarding the place of the Agony, we may well ask why the reversal in question
ever took place. It is possible that a text painted on a wall of the grotto
(and which we shall discuss again later) was the reason for the change in the
minds of pilgrims. It is also possible that the destruction of the church of
Saint Saviour led the faithful, with their devotion to the Agony, to choose
another locality for a place of worship.
Though the Franciscans got possession of the grotto in 1361, their rights
remained Precarious and the subject of many disputes until the end of the 19th
century. The cave remained a kind of public place where Muslims were accustomed
to stable their animals.
In this same grotto of Gethsemane, various documents site the eating of a meal,
in the course of which Jesus washed the feet of the apostles. There is mention
of this meal in the report of Archdeacon Theodosius and in the anonymous little
work called "The Jerusalem Breviary," as also in subsequent writings. It
gradually fell into oblivion, though there is an exceptional mention of it in
the 15th century by a Russian pilgrim, the merchant Basil. Guides even showed
visitors the four (sometimes three) seats on which Jesus had sat with the
apostles. Out of devotion, pilgrims used to take meals in the grotto.
Fr. Emmanuel Testa would discern in this meal one of the "suppers" which the
Judaeo-Christians held in certain places honored by a visit of the Saviour. The
Gethsemane supper is mentioned in a sermon attributed to Patriarch Eutychius of
Constantinople (6th century), together with similar meals taken on Mount Zion
and in Bethany (Cfr. Bethany, in the series The
Holy Places of Palestine, pp. 91-92.) They were most probably
shared by members of the Judaeo-Christian sect called the Ebionites who
abstained from meat and partook only of unleavened bread and water at such
Structure and Decoration of the Grotto
Roughly, the Grotto of Gethsemane measures 19 metres by 10. The great flood of November,
1955, made necessary various tasks of restoration which Fr. Virgil Corbo directed from 1956-1957. It was an opportunity for him to study the structure and subsoil of the place.
The betrayal by Judas - |
an engraving by Doré
Originally, the entrance to the grotto was on the north side and was in the
form of an opening about 5 metres in size. It consisted of the central part
which we still see, and also of a recess to the east. There was most likely an
extension towards a smaller grotto to the east-south-east. The recess seems to
have housed a press, the arm of which was fixed at one end in a hole in the
south wall. This can still be seen.|
To the north-west of the grotto, a curve in the rocky ledge had been enlarged
to serve as a cistern. Water came down from the roof through a small drain
carved in the outside north wall of the grotto. It was led to a small pool
which served to decant it before it flowed into the cistern proper.
There are the various features which were to be seen in existence in Gospel
times. They are proof of the agricultural purpose of the locality. However,
they do not exclude other activities in the place outside the olive harvest
In the 4th century, the grotto was adapted to form a chapel. To this end, a
kind of ambulatory was shaped around it. This can still be viewed, running
along the south and the east walls. Its ceiling was lower than that of the
central part of the shrine. Four pillars supported the roof of the chapel which
was lit through an opening in the roof. A small cistern was dug beneath this
opening to hold rain water.
The grotto at Gethsemane: details of entrance and ceiling
The entrance was changed to the north-west, probably after the church of the
Assumption was built, since this blocked the pathway leading to the grotto. The
new entrance was about 2 metres high by 1.90 wide.
The chapel was paved with white mosaic which was subsequently damaged when
graves were dug through it. The sub-soil of the grotto, except for that under
the sanctuary, became a veritable cemetery, forty-two tombs having been
discovered beneath it. They date from the 5th to the 8th centuries, though the
place was used for burial purposes during Crusader times also.
The cistern itself in the north-west corner was also employed for burials
during the 5th-6th centuries. This was later covered with a mosaic of red,
white and blue cubes. An inscription there can be read only partially: Ke
anapaus... "Lord, grant rest. . . "
From the Byzantine period there has been recovered a fine fragment of the altar
rails which enclosed the sanctuary (presbyterium), together with several
funerary inscriptions. An examination of the ceiling has revealed numerous
scribblings (graffiti) which are still under study.
During the period of the Frankish kingdom, the floor of the chapel was repaired
large mosaic cubes, pieces of marble and brick. The ceiling was decorated,
mainly with star designs, while the sanctuary presented many different subjects
(traces of which can still be seen on the north wall): two halos, clothing, and
an angel's wing. On the basis of a report by John of Wurtzburg (1165) and
inscription on the wall, and parallel mosaics in Venice and Montereggio
(Sicily), Fr. Corbo suggests that there is question of three pictures: the
Prayer of Christ in the Garden, Christ with the apostles and the angel
The three lines of the inscription have been transcribed and interpreted in
various ways. However, the line around the sanctuary seems to mean: "Here (in
these representations): The King sweated blood. Christ the Saviour frequented
(this place with his apostles). My Father, if it is your wish, let this chalice
pass from me".
In 1655, floods forced the Franciscans to block up the Byzantine-period
entrance with a small stone wall and to open another at the end of a narrow
passage fashioned between two supporting walls. The new entrance took up the
western part of the primitive opening. An artificial archway connected it with
the grotto, to which a stairway of a dozen steps led down.
This entrance was repaired somewhat in 1938 and 1956. The latest excavations
have brought to light a large part of the primitive opening into the cave and,
to the right of the modern entrance, the Byzantine doorway has been uncovered
above the ancient cistern just as it was. Fragments of the Byzantine mosaic
have also been restored.
A stone in the facade carries the Gospel passages pertinent to the grotto,
while the word "Gethsemane," carved on the lintel, reminds us of the original
name of the place.
By chance, restoration work in 1956-1957 revealed a small natural grotto
east-south-east of the sanctuary. It was sealed by a wall and contained chalky
soil to the depth of one metre. The plaster on the walls bore no traces of
graffiti or decoration. There does not seem to have been any kind of flooring
either. It is most likely that the cave was walled up following the floods
which occasioned the restorations of 1655.
© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme