Church of San Giovanni Battista


The Church of San Giovanni Battista was regarded as the architectural jewel in Matera’s mediaeval crown because of the beauty of its architecture and the delicacy of its décor.  It can no longer be seen in its entirety because the façade now facing us is actually the side, rather than the main façade, which was incorporated into the building of the Ospedale (the building next to it) in 1610.
Once known as Santa Maria Nova, it was originally built for the recently arrived penitent nuns brought from Acre in Palestine by Bishop Andrew prior to 1193, but it was also known as Santa Maria ai Foggiali, from the Latin word “Fovea”, meaning a hole, of which there were a great many in the area, that was used to conserve foodstuffs such as cereals and pulses.
The church was the first sacred building to be built outside the city walls. Completed in 1233, it was abandoned during the War of Otranto (1480), because its isolated position outside the defensive walls of the city was thought too risky for the nuns.  It was only reopened as a place of worship under its present name in 1695 by Monsignor del Ryos, although drastic structural measures were necessary to rescue it from its long years of dereliction.
Despite the fact that one of the arched walls had to be supported against the façade for structural purposes, various details are testament to the great elegance of the building: the portal, the centre of which is the work of master carvers Michele Del Giudice and Marco Di Lauria, delicately carved with foliate volutes and motifs of small carved heads reminiscent of those in the Cathedral (Porta dei Leoni), and above, at the centre of the tympanum, the small rose window surrounded by hanging mullions and small pillars, decorated with unusual zoomorphic sculptures.
Under the rose window is a polychrome stone statue of St John the Baptist carrying the Gospel in his hand, on top of which sits a lamb (XVIII century).
The outside of the apse (on the right facing the doorway), is the part of the building that has undergone the least structural change.  At the top of the tympanum (upper part), a carved angel watches over the church, while lower down, in the centre is the great round arch with corbels topped with elephants on either side.  Lower still, a window aedicule with a single opening lets the light pour through the coloured glass into the building and has mullions decorated with distinctive zoomorphical figures. The detail is reminiscent of that of the Romanesque portal.


The original mediaeval atmosphere of the church hits you as soon as you walk into the building.  This is largely thanks to the efforts of Abbot Marcello Morelli, who was responsible for having the C16th stuccoes removed in 1926, thus ensuring that the sober limestone interior regained its original elegant simplicity.  The church is on a Latin cross plan and the nave and two aisles are articulated by quatrefoiled pillars with engaged half columns, each crowned by a splendid figured capital with individual anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and foliate motifs, each of great symbolic value, representative of the spirit and of mediaeval Religiosity.  These support big transversal arches that make up great cross vaults.
The first chapel in the left aisle contains the C16th fresco of the Madonna delle Nove.  The sculptured group on the cymatium of The Annunciation and God the Father, who is holding the orb that symbolises humanity in its entirety in his hand, is from the workshop of Altobello Persio.  The next chapel is dedicated to the medical saints Cosimo and Damian, with fine wooden statues of these two Christian martyrs in their characteristic sumptuous red and green cloaks, which are carried in procession by the faithful on the last Sunday in September.  In the same chapel, on the altar, there is a mid C18th painting by Vito Antonio Conversi of the Virgin in Glory with St. Anthony Abbot, St. Dominic, St. Eligio, St. Cosma, St. Biagio and St. Vincent.  Further along the same aisle, there is a most eloquent and forceful polychrome C17th wooden Pietà, carved in 1888 by the Materan sculptor Pasquale Calabrese.
At the beginning of this aisle there is an interesting detail: a graffito at the base of a mullion placed sideways to the large pillar next to the confessional which reads: “DIE 29 DEC … INTERFECTUS COMES”, a reminder of the murder of Count Tramontano in 1514 (SEE PANORAMIC VIEWPOINT NEAR THE CATHEDRAL).
The sculpture on the baptismal font is recent, having been carried out by Ercole Raduzzi in 1929; in an niche in the same aisle there is a C16th tufa statue of St John with the Gospel in his hand, on the cover of which there is a crouching lamb, symbol par excellence of St John the Baptist, by the Materan school.  This statue sat on the main altar at one time, and is almost identical to the one in the niche under the small rose window on the façade.