Lost Altars of the Holy Land: Basilica of Gethsemane

When the unfortunate spirit of iconoclasm entered the Latin Church in the 1960's, many church sanctuaries were suddenly changed all over the world.  Under the guise of the "spirit of Vatican II," a great many sanctuaries were deformed in the name of authentic renewal in the Church.  The titanic cultural shift in Catholic perception from temple worship to man-centered worship took the Church by storm and we still feel the effects today.

The above photograph depicts the former main altar of the Basilica of Gethsemane, also known as the Basilica of All Nations located on the Mount of Olives just outside the old City of Jerusalem.  Its ceiling has twelve inside domes that incorporate twelve symbols that represent the twelve nations that contributed to its construction.  The church was built by the great "architect of the Holy Land," Antonio Barluzzi (1884-1960), who worked on this project between 1919-1924.  

The completed basilica has been described as an "artistic garland of beaten iron and silver, inspired by the mystery of the pain of the agony."  In creating the original altar, Barluzzi sought to draw inspiration from descriptions by ancient pilgrims.  In making the altar Roman, he made ties with the Catholic (universal) history of the place.  The original placement of the altar by Barluzzi was facing East.    

The church is under the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land since 1681, the official custodians of Catholic holy sites in Israel and Palestine.  Under these Italian Franciscans, various altars were changed under their jurisdiction following the Council.  On a global scale the changes been felt, in some ways a phenomenon and corollary of the sixties cultural revolution with its rabid antipathy against the past and frantic race to be "modern."  After the dust had settled, the loss of this beautiful altar is remembered today by only a few, a remnant of traditional Catholics and art historians who feel the loss with a sense of agony. 

In the central mosaic above the altar in the central apse is Christ depicted in agony while consoled by the angel, a creation of Prof. Pietro D'Achiardi (who also did the mosaics on the tomb of Pius XI in the Vatican Grottoes).  The site is popular for pilgrim groups to visit and celebrate Mass as a group.  Laying before the altar is located the traditional rock on which Christ prayed during His last night before captivity: "Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42).  The rock is encircled by a crown of thorns made in wrought iron, a gift from Australian Catholics.  The hanging sanctuary lamps were gifts of the House of Savoy of the Kingdom of Italy.  Pilgrims enter here to kneel and pray and touch the bedrock stone with their hands and rosaries.  Some pilgrims and guides, overcome with emotion, weep bitterly as they read from Mark 14: 32-42.  

For many who visit the Holy Land, their visit to this site stands out the strongest in their memory.  Indeed, for many who visit this is the highlight of their pilgrimage.  In the outside garden are seen ancient olive trees that are over 2,000 years old, venerable in age and still producing fruit to this very day - witnesses to the time of Christ.  

The inside of the church is dark and was intentionally designed this way by the architect, who wished to portray the inside as covered in darkness, evocative of the evening in which Christ was betrayed and imprisoned (even the scattering of bluish alabaster window panels are dark, to evoke a mood analogous to Christ's agony - to interpret the gloom and sadness that was to envelop the earth).  The ceiling is a deep blue to simulate the night sky.  On the liturgical calendar, the day of Christ's agony in the garden is commemorated on Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Sacred Triduum, also commemorated as the first sorrowful mystery of the most holy rosary.

What can be said today of these beautiful altars that are no more?  It is just sad and a major cultural loss.  Where is this altar today?  Perhaps in a landfill.  Does anyone know?  Let us hope and pray one day it will be restored.  The black Sicilian marble of the altar exterior, seen in the photo, is exquisite.  If the revolutionaries were aiming for "noble simplicity," it was already here in spades.  The altar had zero decoration except for a metallic baroque cross that was fixed in the middle, Roman style.  I also like the gradine shelves that were behind the altar, with olive branches that can be seen in vases and the bronze Lamb of God statue that was mounted above the tabernacle.  It is worth noting, the priest would not stand on the actual rock for the prayers at the foot of the altar, but on the footpace in front of it.    

Many times I have stood in this sanctuary for Holy Mass.  I hope one day in a spirit of restorative justice and good taste to see the old altar restored that was originally consecrated in June of 1924.  This place is so special, as Fulton Sheen once wrote: "Those who have been privileged to enter the Garden of Gethsemane by the light fo the full moon carry the memory all their lives."  The sacredness of the site is further evoked during the emotional Tenebrae service of Maundy Thursday, when in the responsory of Lesson I is sung in Latin the most beautiful chant imaginable in the voice of Christ: In monte Oliveti oravit ad Patrem: Pater, si fieri potest, transeat a me calix iste: Spiritus quidem promptus est, caro autem infirma ("At the Mount of Olives He prayed unto the Father: O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me!  The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak)."  

Below is an image of the new "brutalist" altar and tabernacle that replaced the original classical altar with fixed tabernacle, as they appear today.

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