Matera's Ancient Cave Churches, Matera

Matera's Ancient Cave Churches (Self Guided), Matera

Within the old city of Matera, there are more than 160 churches. Many of these are actually carved into the soft limestone cliffs lining the Gravina River. There are even some used for pagan rituals. The churches were carved from existing caves and tunnels. More than a few sanctified cave churches have been converted to storage and homes.

A good example to start with is the St. Anthony Conviction Church Complex (Convicinio di Sant'Antonio). This is a group of four carved-out spaces holding crypts. One is called the First Church. They are chapels with domes separated by pillars. There are crosses similar to those of the Knights Templar.

One crypt is dedicated to Saint Eligo, patron of farm animals. There is a 14th-century portrait of Christ Pantocrator ("all-Powerful"), sitting in judgment. The crypt of Saint Donato has frescoes of Saints Donato, Leonard, Dorothy, and a bishop slaying a dragon. The crypt of Saint Anthony was used for wine storage.

The frescoes of the Church of Santa Maria of Idris ("She Who Shows the Way") were removed in 1970 for restoration. The crypt has old water pitchers and a rough crucifix. A tunnel connects to the adjoining San Giovanni. The Church of Santa Lucia at Malve was carved out in the 8th century. It is the first female monastic Benedictine establishment.

Rupestrian Church of St. Peter Barisano is the largest rock church in Matera. Rock Complex of Madonna of the Virtues and Saint Nicholas of the Greeks are two churches combined with dwellings. They are perfect examples of Latin and Byzantine architecture together. The most monumental is Saint Mary of the Vaglia. The facade is from 1200. It has four Romanesque portals and frescoes.

Matera's cave churches are reminiscent of biblical times. They have been used as the locations for Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew."
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Matera's Ancient Cave Churches Map

Guide Name: Matera's Ancient Cave Churches
Guide Location: Italy » Matera (See other walking tours in Matera)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 5
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.7 Km or 1.1 Miles
Author: nataly
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Convicinio di Sant'Antonio (St. Anthony Conviction Church Complex)
  • Chiesa di Santa Lucia alle Malve (Church of Santa Lucia at Malve)
  • Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris (Church of Santa Maria of Idris)
  • Chiesa Rupestre di San Pietro Barisano (Rupestrian Church of St. Peter Barisano)
  • Rock Complex of Madonna of the Virtues and Saint Nicholas of the Greeks
Convicinio di Sant'Antonio (St. Anthony Conviction Church Complex)

1) Convicinio di Sant'Antonio (St. Anthony Conviction Church Complex)

Saint Anthony Conviction is a complex of four rock churches and a courtyard. It is located in the Casalnuovo district, an old working area of Matera. It is possible to find more than a few 17th-century cellars showing signs of activity. There are caves adapted to wine storage, millstones, and work surfaces.

The four churches are from the 12th and 13th centuries. An ogival arch opens to the courtyard overlooked by the rock churches of San Primo, Sant Eligo, San Donato, and Sant Antonio Abate. Around the end of the 18th century, they lost their status as churches and were adapted to the work systems of the area.

The first church after going through the arch is San Primo. It consists of two small chapels. There is a passage to the crypt of Sant Eligo. Here is a hall and a presbytery for the worshippers and celebrants. Three apses at the rear of the hall have walls with traces of frescoes dating from the 14th century.

The crypt of San Donato has a square plan layout. The vaults, adorned with fading decorations, add to the liturgical spaces of the faithful and the presbytery. Next to the entrance is a cistern used to collect rainwater. The face of San Donato in a miter can be seen in the remains of a fresco. Also discernible is a Madonna and Child.

The last church is a chapel room dedicated to Sant Antonio Abate. The space is divided into three apsidal naves. The apse caps have sculpted lily crosses.
Chiesa di Santa Lucia alle Malve (Church of Santa Lucia at Malve)

2) Chiesa di Santa Lucia alle Malve (Church of Santa Lucia at Malve)

The Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve is a rock church near the Sasso Caveoso, annexed to a women's Benedictine monastery of the 11th century. The church was first dedicated to Saint Agatha and then to Saint Lucia between 1217 and 1267. The nuns moved in 1525 to the monastery of Santa Lucia alla Civita and later to Santa Lucia al Piano. The church became a residence.

Three sculptures of chalices, each from a different era, adorn the facade. They refer to the martyrdom of Saint Lucia. Frescoes, discovered in 1977, decorate the inner walls. The 12th-century pictures show Gabriel crushing a dragon, the Nursing Madonna, San Nicola, San Benedetto, Giovanna Battista, and others.

The church is easy to see compared to the monastic houses. In 1283 the community of nuns moved to the Civita, and the structures became private homes. The church is in two parts. The right aisle, restored and renovated, is open to the public. Mass is celebrated here on December 13, Saint Lucia's Day.

The second part encompasses the other aisles as private residences. The three naves are not symmetrical; they are formed more by stones shaped by nature than craft, similar to a lithotome. The crypt of the church has rich, vivid frescoes. Above the church is a necropolis of rock tombs.
Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris (Church of Santa Maria of Idris)

3) Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris (Church of Santa Maria of Idris) (must see)

The Church of Saint Maria of Idris is a rupestrian church in Matera. It is carved into a limestone rock of Monterrone that dominates the Sasso Caveoso. The beautiful location offers a unique view of the city. The church can be reached via stairs to the rock Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve. "Idris" is derived from the Greek "Odigitria," "who shows the way."

A facade of masonry is next to a small bell tower. The interior nave is uneven. Some frescoes have been removed for restoration. Once restored, they are kept at the Superintendency for Historical and Artistic Heritage of Matera. On the altar is a 17th-century tempera rendering of the Madonna and Child.

Santa Maria de Idris is connected to the rock crypt of San Giovanni in Monterrone via a tunnel. The tomb holds several precious frescoes from the 12th to the 17th century. A fresco of John the Baptist is in the tunnel. In a lunette above the crypt is a 12th-century Christ Pantocrator. The title is Greek, meaning "All-Powerful."

After the corridor is a large hall, a nave of San Giovanni in Monterrone. On the wall of the presbytery is a 12th-century Madonna and Child, Glykophilousa style (Virgin of the Sweet Kiss). Other saints stand in decorated niches.
Chiesa Rupestre di San Pietro Barisano (Rupestrian Church of St. Peter Barisano)

4) Chiesa Rupestre di San Pietro Barisano (Rupestrian Church of St. Peter Barisano)

The Church of San Pietro Barisano was originally called San Pietro de Veteribus ("venerable, old"). It is the largest rock church in the city of Matera. The church has been modified more than once over the ages. The first expansion took place between the 15th and 16th centuries.

In the first expansion of the church, side chapels, were installed. Only part of the chapel remains, behind the second altar in the right aisle. There are frescoes of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the Annunciation, Saints Canio, Saint Augustine, Saint Eustachio, and Saint Vito.

The second renovation gave the church a three-nave plan, a new facade, and an underground room called the "Putridarium," a place for the "draining" of the corpses. This funeral practice was reserved for priests. The drained bodies were dressed in liturgical robes and seated in niches in the tuff walls.

Entering the right aisle, one will find the altar of Saint Joseph, missing its altarpiece, stolen in 1977; the altar of Madonna della Consolazione, with tuff images of Madonna and Child, angels and saints; and the altar of the Blessed Sacrament with its floor of decorated majolica tiles.

The left aisle features the altar of the gold leaf Most Holy Crucifix, the altar of the Annunciation, and the altar of Saint Mary Magdalene. At the end of the aisle is the "Sancta Sanctorum," the storage room for liturgical vestments, furnishings, and relics of saints. There are frescoes of the Madonna and Child and St. Donato the Bishop.
Rock Complex of Madonna of the Virtues and Saint Nicholas of the Greeks

5) Rock Complex of Madonna of the Virtues and Saint Nicholas of the Greeks

The rupestrian churches of Matera are buildings carved into limestone rock. These structures were created in the early Middle Ages. The rock church Madonna of the Virtues (Madonna delle Virtu) was built circa 1000 AD. The adjoining monastery was the home of refugee nuns from Acre or Accon in the Middle East.

The church has a basilica plan of three naves divided by large columns. The columns support "donkey-back" vaults. The women's gallery has arches and columns in relief. The nave apses are semicircular. The vault forms a dome inscribed with a Greek cross in relief. The entrance is from a side nave; road construction in 1934 cut it in half.

The central apse has an 18th-century fresco of the Virgin and Saint John at the crucifixion. The right aisle holds a Gothic, 14th, or 15th-century crucifixion. There is a tuff quarry chamber in the middle of the right nave.

The penitent nuns of Saint Maria di Accon were brought to Matera's Madonna of the Virtues in 1198. They moved in the 13th century to the monastery of Santa Maria Foggiali, the San Giovanni Battista of today.

Above the church is the 10th-century monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Greeks (San Nicola Dei Greci). It is probably the oldest crypt in Matera. It has two naves and apses. The apsidal basin houses a 14th-century fresco of the crucifixion. In the left aisle is a 13th-century triptych of saints. Today, the church and the crypt of Saint Nicholas of the Greeks are used as art exhibition spaces.

Walking Tours in Matera, Italy

Create Your Own Walk in Matera

Create Your Own Walk in Matera

Creating your own self-guided walk in Matera is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Matera Introduction Walking Tour

Matera Introduction Walking Tour

Architectural historian Anne Parmly Toxey said the cave areas of Matera had been occupied for at least 3,000 years. There have been settlements in Matera since the Paleolithic era.

The town itself was founded in 251 BC by Roman consul Lucius Caecilius Metellus. He called it Matheola. Subsequently, the town was occupied by Longobards, Byzantines, Saracens, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.4 Km or 1.5 Miles