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The Cenacle (from Latin cenaculum), also known as the "Upper Room", is a room in Jerusalem traditionally held to be the site of The Last Supper. The word is a derivative of the Latin word cena, which means dinner. In Christian tradition, based on Acts 1:13, the "Upper Room" was not only the site of the Last Supper (i.e. the Cenacle), but the usual place where the Apostles stayed in Jerusalem, and according to the Catholic Encyclopedia "the first Christian church".
Since at least the fourth century AD a structure identified as the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper, has been a popular Christian pilgrimage site on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. It is documented in the narratives of many early pilgrims such as Egeria, who visited it in 384. The building has experienced numerous cycles of destruction and reconstruction, culminating in the Gothic structure which stands today.
While the term “Cenacle” refers only to the “Upper Room,” the building contains another site of interest. A niche located on the lower level of the same building is associated by tradition with the burial site of King David, marked by a large cenotaph-sarcophagus set up by 12th century Crusaders. However, this tradition is attested only as far back as the time of the Crusaders (12th century CE) and most scholars consider this attribution to be incorrect; 1 Kings 2:10 says that David was buried “in the City of David”, identified as the eastern hill of ancient Jerusalem, as opposed to what is today called Mount Sion, which is the western hill of the ancient city. The Cenacle is also connected to the house where Virgin Mary lived among the Apostles until her death or dormition, an event celebrated in the nearby Church of the Dormition.
The early history of the Cenacle site is uncertain; scholars have made attempts at establishing a chronology based on archaeological evidence and historical sources. Biblical archaeologist Bargil Pixner offers these significant dates and events in the building's history.
The original building was a synagogue later probably used by Jewish Christians. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the building was spared during the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus (AD 70), though Pixner thinks it was likely rebuilt right after the war, and claims three walls of that structure are still extant: the North, East and South walls of the present King David's Tomb. Roman emperor Theodosius I built an octagonal church (the "Theodosian Church" or "Holy Zion Church") aside the synagogue (that was named "Church of the Apostles"). The Theodosian Church, probably started in AD 382, was consecrated by John II, Bishop of Jerusalem in AD 394. Some years later, c. AD 415, Bishop John II enlarged the Holy Zion Church transforming it in a large rectangular basilica with five naves, always aside the Church of the Apostles. This building was later destroyed by Persian invaders in 614 AD and shortly after partially rebuilt by patriarch Modestus. In AD 1009 the church was razed to the ground by the Muslim caliph Al-Hakim and shortly after replaced by the Crusaders with a five-aisled basilica named for "Saint Mary". Today part of the site is taken by the smaller church of the Dormition Abbey. It is thought that the Cenacle occupied a portion of two aisles on the right (southern) side of the altar. While the church was destroyed in 1219, the section containing the former synagogue including its upper-floor room (the Cenacle) were spared. In the 1330s, it passed into the custody of the Franciscan Order of Friars, who maintained the structure until 1552, when the Ottoman authorities took possession of it. After the Franciscan friars' eviction, this room was transformed into a mosque, as evidenced by the mihrab in the direction of Mecca and an Arabic inscription prohibiting public prayer at the site. Christians were not officially allowed to return until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The historical building is currently owned by the State of Israel. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which had previously owned the building and sought its return, will have administrative control over the Cenacle itself after the Vatican-Israeli accord which is reported to be near completion as of May 2013.
Scholars offer wide-ranging dates and builders for the surviving Gothic-style Cenacle. Some believe that it was constructed by Crusaders just before Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187, while others attribute it to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, after he arrived in the city in 1229. Still others hold that it was not built in this form until the Franciscans acquired the site in the 1330s. Scarce documentation and disturbed structural features offer little strong support for any of these dates.
In its current state, the Cenacle is divided into six rib-vaulted bays. The bays are supported by three freestanding columns which bilaterally divide the space, as well as six pillars flanking the side walls. While the capital of the westernmost freestanding column is flush with the Cenacle’s interior wall, the column shaft itself is completely independent of the wall, leading scholars to consider the possibility that this wall was not original to the building.
An analysis of the column and pillar capitals offers clues, but not a solution, to the mystery of the current building’s origin. The Corinthianesque capital between the second and third bays of the Cenacle is stylistically indicative of multiple geographical regions and chronological periods. This capital’s spiky leaves, which tightly adhere to the volume of the column before erupting into scrolls, are in congruence with common outputs of the 12th century sculpture workshop at the Temple site in Jerusalem in the last years before Saladin’s conquest in 1187. The workshop also frequently utilized drilling as an ornamental device. The Jerusalem workshop included artists from diverse regions in the West, who brought stylistic traits with them from their native countries. The workshop produced sculpture for many Crusader projects and other structures, such as the al-Aqsa mosque.
This comparison allows for the support of the 12th century date of the Cenacle. There are also, however, similar capitals which originated in workshops in southern Italy, a draw for scholars who wish to associate the building with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and the Sixth Crusade in 1229. Examples can be seen in the Romanesque cathedral in Bitonto, a small city near Bari, in southern Italy, and on column supports of the pulpit in the Pisa Baptistery, carved by Apulian-born sculptor Nicola Pisano around 1260.
The capitals of the freestanding columns are not identical. The capital between the first and second bays seems either severely weathered or shallowly carved, and its volume is a marked contrast from the others. It rises from the shaft in a straight cylinder, rather than in an inverted pyramid, and then flares only just before it intersects with the abacus. The third capital, which now flanks the Cenacle’s western wall, is also unique among the three. It is not decorated with a floral motif, rather, scrolling crockets spring from the base of the volume. Enlart has proposed a comparison to buildings constructed by Frederick II in Apulia.
Analysis of these column capitals does not yield significant evidence to link them to the 14th century and a potential Franciscan construction, nor does it definitively date them to the 12th or 13th century. The building remains a frustrating, but intriguing, mystery.
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