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Crypt of the Original Sin

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

Caves evoke mystery to a modern person. We're so used to having all the light we want, wherever and whenever we go. Our interiors are rational spaces, pre-planned and neatly labeled. When we see caves now, they are places of adventure, not shelter. We also associate them with primitive culture. In Matera, the caves were occupied continuously from the Paleolithic to the mid-20th century. They were tamed and modified for community dwellings, wine and crop storage, and, places of worship. If you visit Matera today, you'll have a sanitized, almost Disneyfied experience, but one well worth having. You'll see museums of the hard-but-resourceful lives the very poor lived there, and how the wealthy landowners long-exploited both the riches and the people of the area. You'll also see medieval churches. Lots of them. Many of these cave chapels and churches served pilgrims traveling along the Via Francigena to the points on the Italian east coast which shipped travelers to the Holy Land. You can still see the graffiti medieval travelers carved: crosses into the painted walls of the churches, to note their devotion.

A cave church which still holds mystery is the Cripta del Peccato Originale (Crypt of Original Sin), just outside Matera, and rediscovered by scholars in 1963 by Dr. Raffaello De Ruggieri. It was apparently created and reserved for a nearby order of late 8th century Benedictine monks, who arrived with the Longobard conquest of the region. In intervening centuries, shepherds would shelter sheep in it; the called it the Cave of 100 Saints.

Full View of the Main Wall of the Crypt

You can see here that the space is fairly high-ceilinged (perhaps 20 feet) and maybe 30 feet wide. The monks did some carving on the side wall to create niches, perhaps for an altar. I am not sure what sort of flooring they had within. When you enter now, you stand on the cave's natural floor. The center section of wall appears to have lost its painting.

Upper Corner of Cave, With Creation and a natural water spout.

One reason why so much of the fresco has damage is the exposure to lots of moisture over the centuries. If you look into the upper-left of this image, you'll see a significant opening, which the painter has given a thick, red border. At the time of this cave's use as a church, a steady stream of water poured through this crevice.

Scene of Cleansing Hands

The trajectory of the water fell right in front of this image, in the next register below the hole in the cave's ceiling. Here, one priest is pouring holy water over the hands of the another priest, in richer robes which I presume represent him as about to perform a holy office. What strikes me about this is that the artist and the monks align their rituals with the natural feature of the cave. Many early churches were built over streams and outpourings which had previously been sites of pagan worship (especially incorporating them into baptismal fonts). Over several centuries, Christian doctrine went back and forth, but mostly forth, about whether nature was a creation of God's, showing his plan, or a profane snare of temptation, leading Christians to their bestial urges. In this space, the cave seems to be framed as a "natural" church. This part of the fresco may be where the monks insert themselves into the narrative. There are no personalizing indicators for these figures--they may be generic.

"Dixit Fiat Lux"

Looking at this part of the wall again, We see that next to the outpouring of water is a representation of the opening of Genesis, with God saying, "Let there be light." The imagery is distinctive, although it's very much reminiscent of medieval manuscript illuminations. Here, God has the cruciform halo usually associated with Jesus. This may be conflating Jesus with Yahweh, as the first inscription (shown in the computer generated restoration shot below) invokes the Trinity. I'll leave it to better church art historians than I to explain that conflation. What really surprises me in this fresco is that Light is personified: it is shown as a well-dressed young man, with his arms outstretched in liberation. God appears to be gesturing at Light, either hailing him, or using the classical orator's sign to note that he, God, is continuing to speak.

"Fiat Tenebre"

And here's where it gets more interesting. The next part of the fresco shows God again, continuing to speak, but this time gesturing in blessing. He gesturing toward a figure in more modest clothing, his arms shackled in front of him. The writing reads "God says, "Let there be darkness." This is Darkness ("Tenebris," with "TE on the left of the figure's head, and "NEBRE" on the right, barely visible). I've seen many medieval repesentations of Creation in Genesis, but I've never seen light and dark juxtaposed as freedom and captivity. I've also never seen this part of Genesis rendered as creating darkness. As the text reads in Latin, Darkness exists first, and Light is brought forth from it.

In trying to tease the logic of this binary out, I talked with the docents at the cave, and they suggested that Arab pirates in the area were kidnapping people to put into slavery, and this might have been on the artist's and monks' minds. The docents speculated that the cave was closed up, hidden, and abandoned by the monks in the 9th century because of Arab attacks and settlement in the region, and the attacks were equally horrific to the population for the enslavement and the fact that the raiders were Muslim. Christian states in the region would centuries later enslave a Muslim colony in Italy.

Computer Realization of the left-side of the fresco in book of the restoration, edited by Massimo Limoncelli

God Names Adam

A large palm tree, signaling the Holy Land and Paradise, serves as a break, for the narrative to fast-forward in Genesis to the creation of Adam and Eve. It is the Tree of Life, with its fronds arcing out like plumes from a fountain. We have the repeat appearance of God, with the cruciform halo, though this time it has the Chi-Rho letters that mark him as Christ. The Creation of Adam itself is obliterated, and it's a shame, because I'd like to see what God's hand gesture was. Adam's hands are out-sized, and folded modestly over his genitals. The artist chooses to insert the Hand of God from heaven to name Adam and create Eve. I'd like to hear from experts about this addition of God as a singular entity.

There's a beautiful reaching up of Adam's hands toward God's hand (blessing him), centuries before Michelangelo used this imagery. Here, unlike in Michelangelo's fresco, the gestures are distinctly hierarchical, and moving in a different way: Adam appears to yearn toward his creator, and God is bestowing upon him his name as a benediction. Eve's creation seems almost an afterthought. She emerges from behind him, sinuously, like a snake. The drawing of her breasts suggest little familiarity with naked women on the part of the artist.

Computer Realization of Adam and Eve in book of the restoration, edited by Massimo Limoncelli

You can see better in the computer recreation that Eve, too, reaches toward God with her hands (center-left). No special naming by God happens for her. Her name is inscribed near the back of her body, far from God, but closer to the snake that represents Satan. In fact, her name is inscribed on both sides of the tree, flanking the snake, as it curls around the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Eve and the Temptation

It's difficult to see, given the damage to the fresco, but Eve's temptation by the serpent seems like an intimate discussion. They are face-to-face, but she seems also defensive: her left arm is holding her fig leaf, and her right hand is brought to her face, as though she's recoiling. (This is as good a place as any to call attention to the numerous poppies that ground the whole creation sequence. They're so distinctive that scholars have named the artist "The Red Flowers Painter.")

"Here Eve Says, 'Adam, Eat!'"

The story of the Original Sin ends in this register with the fateful moment of Adam giving in to temptation. Their right hands reach toward each other, their left hands cover their shame, and the apple is poised in Adam's fingers. Both of them gaze upwards to the apple. I'm assuming there's an apple here, but it could just as easily be a pomegranate--echoing the classical theme of that fruit dooming Persephone to the realm of the dead. The tree itself seems to hold blue fruit, but the one Adam takes from Eve is blood-red. I'm intrigued that the inscription (visible in the computer realization above) has Eve speaking as God does, commanding, but Adam never says anything.

The New Eve

On the wall to the left of the Genesis narrative, niches are carved out, like apses. In this apse, we have Mary and the infant Jesus; each of them dressed like Byzantine royalty. It looks as though the niche protected the fresco from suffering as much damage as the more-flat wall where the Genesis scenes are (which are also closer to that downspout of water). In looking at Mary, we can see the opposition being created between her and Eve: clothed, maternal; receiving instead of tempting. Her body is indiscernible in the layers of robes and jewelry. She is attended by two saints I can't identify (and are not really shown here). This Mary occupies the center apse of three carved into this wall. The other two depict saints Andrew, Peter, and John on her left, and the angels Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael on her right. This wall would be the one towards which the monks oriented their prayers. It seems fitting that the Genesis story is fit onto a surface relatively natural, whereas the New Testament wall is more engineered, shaped to the new revelation.

The Archangels

The cave is called a "cripta" by those who have discovered and studied it, and that designation brings up something important about the space, which might have been lost in calling it a "capella" or "chiesa." As a space hidden within the living rock, it evokes ideas of place important in medieval Christianity: the place where the dead await awakening; the tomb of Christ, where the miracle of resurrection takes place; the tomb of Lazarus, who was the first believer resurrected; perhaps even the womb of Mary, from which the savior came forth. Where other Christian churches used metaphors of sunrise and light, the Cripta del Peccato Originale (whatever its makers called it) centered on the metaphor of darkness, sin, and deliverance. It was a place of expectation, and protection, until the monks who worshipped within it carefully (and no doubt sorrowfully) closed it up when they had to flee. Part of its appeal today for visitors is its long period of dormancy and darkness, with the sense of discovery and treasure the docents give them when they dramatically raise the protective door to reveal the site. The place remains mysterious, but it also lifts the veil to put us in startlingly immediate contact with those who created and prayed within it.

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