An illuminating architectural jewel
Stepping into the cave, and after pausing to admire the breath-taking dimensions of the cavern, the splendid Baroque altar and the starting-point of the underground maze, the gaze is immediately captured by an architectural jewel which seems to materialize in the dimness, just to the right of the entrance: side by side, in picturesque symbiosis, the late Gothic chapel by Andrea di Skofja Loka, and the so-called “Longobard lodge”, known during the XIII century as the chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore d’Antro and later as Santa Maria Antiqua, which to this day boasts a number of early architectural features such as the rounded windows.
A treasure chest of art
The late Gothic chapel of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, was built by “Maister Andre von Lach”, the Slovenian Skofja Loka, with the collaboration of sculptor Jacob, as indicated by an epigraph on one side of the lancet arch. Inspired by the architects of Prague, the vaulted ceiling is supported by an astonishing diamond-shaped weave of ribs which form a seven-pointed star over the apse. All the nodes are decorated by round carvings representing flowers, shields and human heads. The supports on which the ribs rest depict an extraordinary series of crude but highly-expressive half-busts, mostly representing ordinary people: shepherds, drinkers, players of the one-stringed gusle or rudimentary bagpipes. A cross-section of Medieval life, dominated by a dramatic XVII-Century wooden crucifix.
In the centre of the cavern, standing in splendid isolation, the baroque altar by Bartolomeo Ortari di Caporetto, the original statues of which are conserved in the Diocesan Museum in Udine.
Symbols, written signs and enigmas from a mysterious past
The many mysteries held by the iconography of the Church/Cave of San Giovanni d’Antro exert a unique effect on tourists and scholars alike. Near the entrance, the face of Christ carved on the stone wall, which in many ways recalls the Holy Shroud, has given rise to numerous theories, some referring to the presence of the Knights Templar and based on the frescoes showing symbols typical of knightly orders, such as equal-armed crosses and a six-petal rosette, both carved inside a circle. On the wall of the apse in the chapel, researchers have discovered ancient markings in the plaster, a mysterious phrase in Greek and rudimental symbols such as the “fringed circle” (the sun) and palm trees (or perhaps ferns). Their meaning is less than clear, but these were probably painted between the VII and VIII centuries, in a moment of history between paganism and the advent of Christianity, in a turbulent region through which the Longobards, Slavic peoples and many others were passing. Leaving aside all scientific considerations, the visitor is struck by the magical atmosphere of a place that has inspired ancient legends, such as that of Queen Vida – perhaps Rosamund or even the mythical Thiodelinda – who fled from the attacks of Attila to this impregnable eagle’s nest, which became known in local mythology as the “Fortezza degli Slavi” (Fortress of the Slavs).