A dark underground passage leads from the church to the crypt of San Giovanni. The churches were not originally intercommunicating, but separated by a thin dividing wall of tufa. This narrow passage is embellished with fine frescoes, which, together with the ones in the crypt, go from the C12th to the C18th.
On the left wall there is a C12th CHRIST PANTOCRATOR, i.e. the Governor or Ruler of All, his hand raised in a Latin blessing and holding an open Gospel inscribed with a Greek text. On the outer edge of the lunette, there is a Latin inscription: Mundi Salvator Simil et Sum Lucis Amator. It is a harmonious fusion of Byzantine and Latin elements.
Above, on the remains of an arch, is a SAINTED MONK whose identity has so far foxed scholars. The fresco has been dated C13th.
Opposite, St. NICHOLAS, Bishop of Mira in Turkey, whose bones were stolen and taken to Bari, where they are preserved in the Cathedral. He is the patron saint of Bari, where he is much venerated. The fresco is C14th.
The passage leads to the church Crypt, used first as a Baptistery and then as a burial place. There are many very interesting frescoes: in the recess ahead, on the left, is a C13th Annunciation, in front of which in the typical arched frame, is a mid C13th St. James the Less, an Apostle much venerated by Christian communities, who was sometimes called ‘the brother of the Lord’ because it is possible that he was Jesus’ cousin. He was privileged to witness a special apparition of the resurrected Christ, having vowed to himself that he would not eat again until he had seen Christ resuscitated with his own eyes. He is thought to have been the first Bishop of Jerusalem and died a martyr on the orders of the High Priest of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Ananus I.
Next to him is a St. PETER, also datable to the mid C13th; both are attributed to the Maestro della Bruna. Pilgrims returning from the Holy Land used to make what seems to have been an obligatory stop here, and the graffito symbols they left on the frescoes are still visible: a Star of David, bottom right, and a particular sort of crucifix, left. On the right, round the corner, Saints Jerome and Apollonius. There is then a palimpsest featuring the Madonna Odigitria (showing the Way, i.e. the Christ Child) according to some experts, others believe it to be St. Andrew. There are a fair number of palimpsests in the rock-churches around Matera. These are frescoes that have been painted over several times, usually as a result of the modernisation or rebuilding of churches. The original frescoes were beaten with a hammer to make the new ones take, but in this case the Saint’s face was left untouched, probably out of respect, so the later fresco has failed to adhere and has slipped off, leaving the face of the unknown Saint belonging to the earlier fresco underneath.
On the opposite wall, the Church’s most recent fresco depicts CHRIST WITH ST. AGNES, Christian martyr, Roman virgin, cruelly persecuted by the Emperor Decius. She was martyred at the tender age of 12, and is remembered as an example of courage and purity. She is the guardian saint of virgin girls. Others suggest, however, that the figure is in fact St. John, his features delicate given that he too was killed when young. The fresco dates from C16th, and is followed by a painting of the Virgin Mary and the name of the commissioning patron.