Where was Jesus between the events of the Passion? The Bible doesn’t really say.
However, from the Middle Ages to the present day various sites have been identified as prisons or cells in which Jesus was held during the events known as the Passion. I’ve been working for some time on the rich and multifaceted medieval traditions which surrounded Christ’s imprisonment. The Armenians continue to venerate a prison cell at the Convent of the Olive Tree in the Old City, often said to be site of the house of the high-priest Annas. The Franciscans worship at a prison cell at the rear of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Greeks hold an ancient cistern on the Via Dolorosa to be the holy prison cell in which Christ was held by Pilate. In the Crusader period a further site, the Chapel of the Repose, was described as Christ’s holy prison cell on the Via Dolorosa. Here I want to share a few thoughts and pictures about another of these sites, the underground cave known as Jesus’ prison cell at the Catholic church of St Peter in Gallicantu, on Mount Zion just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
As the name suggests, this place is identified as where the cock crowed three times, revealing Peter’s deception and Jesus’ forgiveness (Luke xx:6). But the site is also associated with the high-priest Caiphas, where Jesus was led to be mocked (Luke xxii: 63-5). In the Byzantine period it is clear that the tombs and cisterns cut into the rock here started to be venerated as holy sites, as red and black crosses were painted on the walls. During the crusader period, the site started to be more firmly established as where Peter was imprisoned (Acts iv:3) and then the house of Caiphas in which Jesus was mocked.
However, the physical prison cell of Christ at St Peter in Gallicantu is a very modern ‘invented tradition’, dating from the 1880s. The French Assumptionist Order founded the monastery in 1887 and two years later the caves beneath were discovered; this was part of the scramble for holy space around Jerusalem in the late nineteenth century, after new Russian, Greek, Anglican and other orders founded grand institutions outside the city walls, their spires compete for the city’s iconic skyline. Often, as at St Peter in Gallicantu, an active kind of medievalism was at work, as crusader-sites and pre-Ottoman pilgrimage sites were refounded and reinvigorated.
The monastery is a grand building, with a bright mosaic showing the outrages de caiphe: the abuses of Caiaphas.
One then descends several levels, following rather ominous ‘one-way crypt’ signs:
The Prison itself is a deep cave. Holes in the rock have had small ropes attached to them, to strengthen the conjecture that these holes were used for manacles. But the Prison is a surprisingly unadorned space: a sandy dark cave, equipped not with an altar (it’s not a formal chapel) but a lectern with a reading, adapted from the description of the Suffering Servant from the Old Testament book of Isaiah (xl:55): ‘Lord Jesus, your hands are tied so that mine may be freed. You accepted death so that freed from sin and death I might come to paradise with you! Blessed are you Lord!’
Remarkably, the signage at monastery is circumspect about any claims of authenticity:
‘…according to a fourth-century tradition not recorded in the Gospels, Jesus would have been scourged not only by Pilate but also by Caiaphas, and where the apostles Peter and John would have been held and scourged for preaching name of Jesus in the temple area after the resurrection. Aided by this context, Christians traditionally recall here some of the painful sufferings endured by Jesus during his Passion – regardless of where they took place, as well as by the apostles, the first believers in his name.’
In this way, the site directly recalls the mnemonic culture of the later Middle Ages: at St Peter in Gallicantu one is not awed by a historical site but rather one is ‘aided’ by the context to remember the narrative of the Passion and its emotional effects: this Prison of Christ is then best seen as a memory-cue and a stimulus to emotion rather than a place of historical proof in itself.