Sacred Spaces: The Rock Churches of Matera

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“The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera comprises a complex of houses, churches, monasteries and hermitages built into the natural caves of the Murgia.”  This site was first occupied back in the Paleolithic Era until the mid-twentieth century when the population was relocated (to renovate the ancient district and improve sanitation).  “While the abandonment of the area led to some degradation, the return of people [in] the 1980s has restored the traditional use and function of the property, and rejuvenated the spirit and feeling of the place.”

Much like Agios Stefanos, which also utilizes its rocky surroundings in its architecture, the Rupestrian (referring to the art done on the rock/cave walls) Churches are unique sacred spaces.  They are very much a part of their environment, carved into the rock during the middle ages.

“Initially born as religious structures, [the churches] over time have undergone several changes of use , becoming homes or shelters for animals.” Today, the Sassi and Rupestrian Churches have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“The rock churches often contain frescoes and sculptures, which, in addition to the decorative function, induced to contemplation and prayer.”  There are over 150 rock churches in Matera, however, for this blog, we will be concentrating on three of the most important: Santa Maria de Idris, Santa Lucia alle Malve, and San Pietro Barisano.

Santa Maria de Idris

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Perhaps the most famous of the Matera’s Rupestrian Churches, Santa Maria de Idris “[…]is located at the top of [Mount Errone], a large limestone cliff that rises in the middle of the Sasso Caveoso.”  It is completely carved into the rock, beautifully utilizing its environment.  Unfortunately, being carved into rock also makes the church susceptible nature’s whims.  In the fifteenth century, the church collapsed and the facade had to be rebuilt.

The name of the church – Idris – derives from the Greek word “Odigitria” (meaning guide of the street or water).  “In Constantinople[,] the Virgin Mary was so called and venerated, whose cult was introduced in southern Italy [(where the church is located)] by the Byzantine monks.”

The interior of the church is rather plain.  It consists of a single room decorated with some once-fine frescoes that have deteriorated time and neglect.  Luckily, some of the frescoes “[…] were removed in the early 1970s by the Sovrintendenza per I Beni Storici ed Artistici (the Government body responsible for the country’s historical and artistic heritage) because they were in an appalling state of conservation and because of the high degree of humidity inside the church.”  They were then restored and kept at Matera’s Historical and Artistic Heritage Office so they may be enjoyed for centuries more.

On the altar of the church is a fresco depicting the Madonna and Child (dating from the 17th century). There are also frescoes depicting St. John the Baptist, a 12th century Christ Pantocrator holding an open Gospel inscribed with Green text, St. Nicholas in episcopal robes, and more.

“The church [of Santa Maria de Idris] continued to function as a place of worship on certain feast days, until the 1940s.”

Santa Lucia alle Malve

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Santa Lucia alle Malve is the first female of the Benedictine monastic settlement, dating back to the eighth century, and the most important in the history of the city of Matera.

Unlike those of Santa Maria de Idris, the ancient frescoes of Santa Lucia alle Malve have been beautifully preserved.  A careful restoration made them look as new, with brilliant and vivid colors.

The most famous of the frescoes is the Madonna del Latte (dated from around 1270) which was painted by the same master who painted the Madonna della Bruna.  The fresco depicts “[…] the Madonna nursing the Child, in a gesture of tenderness that is probably represented to reaffirm a dimension closer to the man of that authoritarian and vindictive God as it was conceived in the Middle Ages.” 

“In the niche next to it, St. Michael the Archangel, dated 1250, in his role as messenger of God, covers a vestigraple studded with precious stones, symbol of the ambassadors of the imperial court of Byzantium and holds a seal with an inscribed Greek cross in one hand. In the other hand he has the labar and under his feet twists the dragon representing the devil.”

Of the three naves that articulating the interior space, the right one remains open for worship.  On December 13th, a solemn mass is held for the day of St. Lucia.

San Pietro Barisano

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“San Pietro Barisano, originally called San Pietro de Veteribus, is the largest rock church in the city of Matera.”  It was formed in the 12th-13th centuries, according to archaeological investigations.

Over the centuries, the church underwent a few renovations.  An 18th century renovation “[…]gave the church its current form: a system with three naves, a new facade (dated 1755) and the underground rooms for the “draining” of the corpses.”

“This funeral practice, reserved for priests or aspirants, consisted in placing the corpses dressed in sacred vestments in niches shaped in the tufa; the mortal remains were removed only at the end of the decomposition.”

Excessive humidity, however, made this rather difficult and in 1903, the parish was moved to the church of Saint Agostino, located nearby.  This abandonment, coupled with the 1950’s relocation of the area, left the church vulnerable and, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, many of its artworks were stolen or damaged.

The main, wooden altar of the church’s central nave (dating from 1771) has been preserved at the Superintendence for Historical, Artistic and Ethno-anthropological Heritage of Basilicata.  The altar of St. Joseph remains only in part of its wooden frame (the rest was stolen in 1977) while the altar of the Madonna della Consolazione, luckily, remains.  It contains the image of the Madonna and Child crowned by angels and is surrounded by statues of various saints.

Tour the Rupestrian Churches of Matera

The video below offers a great overview of some of Matera’s rock churches. (click here to view directly on YouTube).

Sacred Spaces Blog Series

Want to learn more about the world’s most unique and fascinating sacred spaces? Follow the links below to other pieces from our Sacred Spaces blog series!

Basilica di San Marco (Venice) | St. Issac’s Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | Monastery of the Kiev Caves (Kiev) | St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | The Duomo (Florence) | The Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) | Cathedral of St. Sophia (Novgorod) | Church of Our Savior on  Spilled Blood (St. Petersburg) | The Church of the Ascension (Kolomenskoye) | St. Basil’s Cathedral (Moscow) |The Churches of Kizhi Pogost | Monastery of Panagia Elona | Smolny Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | Agios Stefanos (Syros Island) | Church of the Intercession on the Nerl

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The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera –
The Rock Churches –
Madonna de Idris –
Santa Maria de Idris –
San Pietra Barisano –
Santa Lucia alle Malve –
Madonna di Idris –
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