Echoes from the Past: The Cave Churches of Matera
Matera, is an Italian city located in a southern region known as the Basilicata; between the heel and the tip of the boot of Italy. UNESCO reports that the area has been inhabited since the Neolithic Era. This hilly and rocky area was once called the shame of Italy due to the poor living conditions and extreme poverty experienced by the citizenry up to the 1950s. There are, however, points of deeper interest contained in the rocks of Matera.
Panorama of Matera (Public Domain)
Contained within the city are over 150 churches and stone structures. It is not the number of churches and structures that is impressive though, but their construction and use. Many of these constructions were carved into the relatively soft tufa stone (a type of limestone) and some were used by earlier inhabitants for pagan rites. The pocked, rarely symmetrical, and mostly white walls, half walls, and niches at one time or another echoed with the words spoken by various groups. The “churches” were initially naturally occurring caves and many were later excavated and carved.
Some of the structures were even moved to other areas of the town during different periods. Many of the buildings were originally sanctified and then used for mundane purposes; such as depots and habitations. Several of the structures have also recently been converted to hotels.
The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera (Public Domain)
Of these over 150 structures there some better known than others. A complex which contain several examples is the Convicinio di S. Antonio. This series of carved out spaces contains four churches which hold crypts. One of these structures is referred to as the First Church. These chapels are decorated with domes, a separating pillar and equilateral crosses - a symbol often associated with the Order of the Knights Templar, although it is uncertain if there is a connection between the structure and the Order.
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Inside one of the caves of the Convicinio di S. Antonio complex. (Sassiweb)
One crypt contained in this complex is dedicated to Saint Eligio, who was revered as one of the patron saints of domestic animals by the local farmers. On his feast day, December 1st, that local farmers would lead their animals to this chapel and then around the pillar to receive the Saint’s protection and blessing.
This chapel is also decorated with a 14 century Christ Pantocrator, a painting which depicts Jesus Christ with his right hand raised in the sign of blessing; index, middle finger and thumb extended outward while the remaining two are folded toward the palm. In the left arm he holds a Gospel book. This is a common iconography of the Orthodox Church. Although they are reported to now be faded, the crypt was also decorated with several other frescos.
St Eligius in His Workshop (Public Domain)
The next crypt is dedicated to Saint Donato. This crypt contains frescos of Saint Donato, Saint Leonard, and Saint Dorothy. The paintings of Saints Donato and Leonard are situated upon opposing pillars. There are also other paintings depicting a Bishop slaying a dragon - which is said to be dated in the 17th century.
The Miracle of Saint Donatus by Jusepe de Ribera, Musée de Picardie. (Public Domain)
The next crypt in this complex was dedicated to Saint Anthony. This particular crypt shows signs of the more mundane uses that occurred after the area had been abandoned by the religious groups. There are ruts in the stone steps that are speculated to be from the rolling of wine casks.
Church of Madonna de Idris
Another interesting structure of Matera is the Church of Madonna de Idris. This church too was carved out of a rock face. The walls of the church are noted to be rather plain by some sources and many of the frescoes that were once present were removed in the 1970s by an Italian government agency. On either side of the alter are found idres or water pitchers. There is also a crude crucifix.
The cliff of the Madonna de Idris (Public Domain)
A structure that has been considered of a higher order than some of the other cave churches is the cave church of Saint Lucia de Malve. Saint Lucia, also known as Saint Lucy, is considered the patron saint of blindness. The church of Saint Lucia de Malve was built in the 8th Century and is also reported to be the “first female monastic Benedictine settlement.”
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Church of Saint Maria de Armenis
Another structure of note is the Church of Saint Maria de Armenis. This saint is reported to be the Madonna of the Armenians by some sources and this church has been contributed to the Armenians, who were part of the Benedictine army that was present at one time.
The Church of Saint Maria de Armenis. (ZATIK)
The Barbarian Cemetery
The Cimiterio Barbarico, or Barbarian Cemetery is another curious structure of Matera. At this cemetery, the graves were carved into the stone and were tombs during the Lombard era. The Italian government covered these structures with cement and pebbles to protect them from erosion.
As a whole, these rock constructions show the use and appropriation of structures that were present from very early times of human history. Some of the naturally occurring caves housed early Stone Age peoples. Other caves were used for pagan ceremonies prior to the arrival of Christendom.
They were then carved out in some cases to relatively deep depths and utilized by different Christian sects during different epochs then subsequently abandoned and used for more mundane activities by the local population. The area is now attempting to build a tourism industry fueled by the intrigue of the overlapping times and cultures carved into the soft stone.
Cave in Matera, Italy (Public Domain)
Featured image: Matera, Basilicata, Italy. The Sasso Barisano looking east. (Public Domain)
By James Barr