Basilica del Getsemani

The Basilica of Gethsemane can be visited again in all its splendor

Giacomo Pizzi21 March 2013

After 18 months of work, the Basilica of Gethsemane It returns to its former glory: the restoration of the precious mosaics has been completed, and the 5000 pilgrims who visit the Church of the Agony in Jerusalem every day will once again be able to linger among the ancient naves with their noses up, immersed in a nocturnal setting reinforced by those mosaics where, on a dark blue background, the starry sky framed by olive branches lights up.

The great 12-vaulted Basilica of Gethsemane, designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi with contributions from several countries around the world (hence the name “Basilica of the Nations”) was finished in 1924 and has never been restored since. For this reason, the Custody of the Holy Land has decided – also forced by the signs that time has left well imprinted on the vaults of the church – to renovate one of the most important places in all of Christianity, a few steps from the holy garden where everything concurs to evoke the nocturnal scene of that Easter Thursday, when among the branches of the olive trees and in the moonlight, Jesus suffered agony and abandonment to the Father’s will.

“The Franciscans could have entrusted the project to workers who had come from abroad,” says Carla Benelli, head of cultural projects at ATS pro Terra Sancta, “but they chose to invest in the formation of local Palestinian youth.” Six young people from East Jerusalem, five of whom are Muslims, have been guided during these months by two trainers from the Mosaic Centre in Jericho. And so they learned to work on mosaics of great artistic value. “Entrusting the restoration of the basilica near the olive garden to Muslim young people was quite a challenge,” Benelli continues, “but they feel grateful and proud to have participated in this conservation work.” In addition to the signs of time, those of recent history also come to the surface. On the majestic mosaic of the tympanum, where Jesus is depicted as mediator between God and humanity, the marks of bullets fired on the façade during the Six-Day War in 1967 were traced. The project has obtained the support of the Palestinian Municipalities Support Program (PMSP) of the Consulate General of Italy in Jerusalem, the Municipality of Rovereto, the Opera Campana dei Caduti Foundation and the Cassa di Risparmio di Trento e Rovereto Foundation.

The Custos of the Holy Land and president of ATS pro Terra Sancta, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa has repeatedly emphasized the importance and educational value of this work. More than a thousand children from Jerusalem, between 8 and 12 years old, have come in recent months to visit the church, which is open for them during closing hours, from 12 to 14. Many were unaware of this World Heritage Site, known and revered by more than a billion people. “On their way to school in the morning, children see rows of buses queuing up to drop off pilgrims and they ask themselves: why there?” The Franciscan friars thus decided to encourage school visits to introduce the little heirs of this heritage to a church that also belongs to them, Muslim and Christian children. “Most of the time they are stunned to see a place so beautiful and so close to their home in the heart of East Jerusalem.” They would never have imagined it. So much so that a Muslim girl at the end of the tour asked the friars: “Can I also go back with my parents?”