The site is in the Natural, Archaeological Park of Rupestrian Churches of Matera – the natural environment is that of Murgia Appulo-Lucana (very typical gorge and hills landscape) limestone formed through marine sedimentation with a very important environmental heritage (flora and fauna – over 900 types of plants) typical of garrigue.
Regional Archaeological Context:
The cave was inhabited from Palaeolithic time till Medieval time (with the last traces of rock art dating back to the High Medieval times – IX century a.C.).
Archaeological evidence at the site:
You are in a natural cavern that opens onto a deep karstic gorge flanking the torrent Gravina di Picciano, in the Pietrapenta locality of Matera.
The geological backbone of the cave comprises two sedimentary formations of marine origin: Cretaceous massive limestone and Calabrian yellow-white calcarenite.
Along the surface of transgression between the two formations you can observe several holes left by stone-boring mussels.
The cave represents the place of worship of a monastic community belonging to the early Middle Ages that settled in the numerous caves located on the opposite flank of the gorge.
Thanks to an exemplary restoration, realized through the coordinated efforts of a team of specialists, today the “One Hundred Saints” have come back to life in their original form.
This has been a long, difficult and intense commitment that should not be considered simply as a qualified restoration of a prestigious monument, as it wishes, above all things, to represent the setting up of a standard, of a “code of practice” to be employed in the long-wished-for policy for the correct preservation, programmed maintenance and modern management of the rupestrian heritage of the entire Southern Italy.
This exceptional rupestrian oratory represents one of the oldest examples of the rupestrian art of Southern Italy. Its extraordinary cycle of frescoes, made five hundred years before Giotto, shows the typical features of Benedictine beneventan art and is stylistically summarized by the Lombard cultural climate (VIII and IX centuries). For the theological and artistic value of the pictorial compendium, the cave-church has been named the 'Sistine Chapel' of the rupestrian wall painting.
The humble fresco painter, remembered as the “Painter of Flowers of Matera”, illustrated on the back wall the biblical account of the early chapters of Genesis: God the Father Creator, the Light, the Darkness, the creation of Adam, the birth of Eve, the Original Sin and temptation. Under the panel's creation, in the three apse basins, great patriarchs are depicted: the Apostles (Peter, Andrew and John), the archangels (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael) and the veneration of the Virgin Queen by two saints.
The precious cycle of frescoes, for years attacked by mosses, lichens and cyan bacteria, was recovered by the Zètema Foundation, in consultation with the Central Institute of Restoration and the participation of committed experts. The restoration was made possible thanks to fundings from Italian bank foundations and has become a model of scientific reference, a code of practice for future work on the world rupestrian heritage.
Short description of rock art manifestations:
The chapel of the monastery was placed in this oddly shaped natural cavity that was adapted only by the excavation of three apsidal conchs, adorned by splendid wall paintings in such great numbers as to have been committed to popular memory as the Grotto of “one hundred Saints”.
Now let’s try and imagine the Christian community gathered around the coenoby of Pietrapenta in the act of entering this cave-church to renew their profession of faith.
The images painted on the rock appear to move in the shimmering light of the candles, heightening the profound mysticism of the underground temple.
The faithful stop in front of the central apse, dominated by the image of Maria, sumptuously dressed as the Virgin Queen. Struck by such beauty they raise a chant of celebration and prayer.
While they are chanting they observe the scenes from the Old Testament laid out on a large frieze emphasized by a double red frame enriched with gemstones, representing a liberal pictorial translation of the “Bible of the poor”, that is the Bible narrated to the faithful, devoted yet illiterate people, who related more to images than to words.
A scroll, high on the left, reminds of the soul-saving role of God: “Dominus Deus est salus aeterna”, that is to say “The Lord is eternal salvation”.
The centre of the narrative frieze is dominated by the image of the Almighty, cleft by one of the many karst conduits that have scored, over time, the underground environment.
To His right is the illustration of the Creation of Light and Darkness, reiterated with the figures of the Creator and of the Created. The figure of God is depicted according to the early Christian iconography, with a young and beardless face, a long ornate robe, in the act of blessing and with the scroll of Law held in his left hand. The created Light is symbolically represented by a joyous female figure with arms raised in acclamation and her hands projecting out of the frame. She wears a rich and sumptuous tunic with broad sleeves. The Darkness, on the other hand, is represented by a young slave with a humble countenance, his wrists and ankles bound by thongs.
The Creation of Light and Darkness, elucidated by Latin epigraphs, breaks out of every scheme along two distinct episodes, as opposed to the single episode of the separation of Light from Darkness as the Book of Genesis relates: “And God said: Let there be Light; and then there was Light. God saw the Light, and found it good, and he divided Light from Darkness”.
A palm tree with long and graceful leaves closes this sequence and is used to identify the area where the illustrated narration takes place.
The palm tree represents the Tree of Life with direct reference to Paradise. The symbolism of this tree is complemented by another tree further on, the Tree which brings Knowledge of Good and Evil that appears bare and withered, with the serpent coiled around it.
A little way away from God the Creator the Creation of Man is illustrated.
Adam is standing but asleep, as the passive position of his hands, one on top of the other, seems to suggest.
On the opposite side he is represented in an active position with his hands outstretched towards the divine nimbus from which the hand of God is extended. At the same time the birth of Eve is illustrated with her issuing from the left side of Adam, who is not sleeping as in the traditional representations, yet is shown in a standing and vital position. The naked bodies are depicted in pale ochre outlined in dark red, a very fine and modern design.
The subsequent scenes illustrate the seduction of Eve by the serpent and the seduction of Adam by Eve.
The serpent, coiled around the withered Tree of Evil and with its jaws wide open, deceives Eve who, as the sacred scriptures narrate “saw that the fruit was good to eat. She took then some fruit, ate it and she gave some to her husband, and he ate with her. Then the eyes of both were opened and they became aware of their nakedness; so they sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves girdles”.
The large frieze is embroidered with shrubs of flowers with red corollas that act as a connective tissue for the narrative sequences and appear as a blooming carpet on which the old testament figures seem to float.
Due to the overwhelming presence of this extraordinary floral embroidery the author of the pictorial cycle of the Crypt had been named “The Flower Painter of Matera”.
The wall above the three apses must have been entirely frescoed too, as a few isolated fragments suggest today.
From right to left there are, barely visible: a half-length image of the blessing Christ with the two archangels Michael and Gabriel poised in the air on either side; two tortile columns on which the symbols of the Evangelists are only just noticeable; fragments representing an undecipherable episode from the life of Saint Peter in which, though, is evident, next to a lance, a round shield, typical of the Longobard army.
The three apses are devoted to liturgical purposes.
The first apse encloses the triad of the Apostles and illustrates the acclamation of Saint Peter by the two chief disciples John, on the left, and Andrew, his brother, on the right. The Apostle Peter holds in his left hand two keys that, overlapping, form his name. To Peter, His Vicar, Christ bestowed the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, as a sign of his supremacy over the magisterium and jurisdiction of the entire Church.
John the Evangelist is depicted with a youthful aspect, his right hand raised in a declamatory gesture to proclaim the Gospel held in his left hand. Of the image of Andrew only the face remains, surrounded by curls.
The Triad of the first three Apostles that followed Jesus rests on a delicate ‘velarium’, reminiscent of those classic schemes that reintroduced fake marble plinths.
The second apse encloses the Triad of the Archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
At the centre of the composition, the Archangel Michael stands out between the other two thanks to a play of reverse perspective whereby he transcends the frames delimitating the conch. In his left hand he holds the sceptre, signifying his leadership. At his sides are the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael, dressed alike and with the same stance; in their right hand they hold the cross and in their left one they hold the terraqueous globe, another symbol of sovereignty and of the power they were invested by God.
To the left of the Archangels, within a small and independent panel, we find the depiction of the liturgical scene of the purification of the hands by a bishop, portrayed with a tonsure, symbol of renouncement to the world and of complete devotion to God. The bishop is represented with the western liturgical clothing in the act of washing his big hands with the water a deacon is pouring from a raised jug. Neither of the figures is portrayed with a halo, so the scene is perhaps representing an episode that occurred in history, for example the pastoral visit of an archbishop.
The third apse encloses the veneration of the Virgin Mary by two female saints. The Queen Madonna, the Basilissa or Empress of Matera, is still clothed in the fashion of Mary the celestial empress and not, as she will be throughout Byzantine art, as a widow. Her dress is sumptuously rich, her head crowned with a three pointed diadem decorated with gems and three-petal flowers; her wide-sleeved tunic is embroidered with pearls over her shoulders; she wears a dalmatic adorned with beaded circles and braids while the veil that falls on her body shows serrated borders enriched with very peculiar fringes. The Virgin holds with her left arm the blessing Child, who holds in His left hand the closed scroll of Law. On each side, leaning towards the central figures, there are two female figures, likewise clothed in ornate robes and dalmatic garments, standing out among the recurring flower carpet.
The image of the Virgin recalls the famous Theodora of Ravenna, transfigured and idealized on the shining wall of the San Vitale church, yet the Basilissa of Matera, likewise represented as a noble and tall woman, displays a typically Latin motherly look, sweet and intense.
Although the artist was influenced by a technique with the austere figures depicted with vividly marked contours, he expressed himself freely, with dexterity and mastery of colour with which he invigorated and stirred the images.
The strong shading on the saints’ robes, the warm hues of the clothes of the female figures, the elegance of the Lord’s robe, the eyes wide open, the full lips, as well as the great compositional freedom in representing the Bible, all convey the typically western, if not Latin, vernacular, marked by shaded colours incorporated into the panels that mitigate the linearity of the contours, by a segmentation of black lines that stirs the clothes; by an intense sumptuousness of the clothes with the purpose of dissolving the rigid immobility and by a personal characterization of the faces.
The ‘Flower Painter of Matera’ of the large red corollas was a Benedictine belonging to the aesthetic and religious tradition of the Longobard culture, in particular of the Benevento area, influenced by formal schemes that he so wondrously rearranged, bestowing them with Latin emotion and impetus. This theory is supported by the Latin epigraphs that comment each representation.
For the authenticity and uniqueness of its extensive pictorial compendium, the Crypt of the Original Sin represents an exceptional and surprising testimony of Southern Italy art history: we are in the presence of a form of painting that expresses the historical characteristics of the Benedictine art school of the Benevento area stylistically distilled through the Longobard cultural period.
The wall paintings have been dated to the first half of the 9th century, that is prior to the conquest of Matera in 859 A.D. by the Arabs.
These are frescoes that were painted five hundred years before Giotto.
Thus it can be said that the pictorial cycle illustrated in this cave is the oldest found in Basilicata and among the earliest artistic evidence of Southern Italy as a whole.
Frescos dates to the 8th – 9th century a.C.
Type of Site: Cave – Rupestrian Church
Adress: Contrada Pietrapenta, 75100 Matera – Italy
Telephone: + 39 0835 309071
Fax: + 39 0835 264808
Website: www.criptadelpeccatooriginale.it / www.materahub.it / www.zetema.it / www.artezeta.it /www.basilicatanet.com/artezeta
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Province: Region of Basilicata / Province of Matera
Location: Contrada Petrapenta
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Restaurants near the site:
Agriturismo Fratelli Dragone
Contrada Pietra Penta Matera – 00390835319970
From 15 to 25 euros
Updated lists of restaurants can be found on the website www.aptbasilicata.it/MATERA.436.0.html