The Stone Churches of Matera and the Park of Rupestrian Churches (A Unesco World Heritage since 1993)
In Matera and in the surrounding area there are 155 stone churches dug out of the peculiar calcareous rock of this region and most can be visited, even though one has to walk for a few hours to reach some churches located in the park.
Most of these churches were excavated between the 8th and 14th centuries when Matera, because of its strategic position (between the Duchy of Benevento and the Byzantine provinces) and the particular morphology of the region, became a place of sanctuary for both the Benedictine and the Byzantine monks.
The consequent monastic settlements, generally referred to as stone churches, appear quite varied from an architectural perspective since, over the long period in which they were excavated, the life style of the monks had gradually evolved from hermitage to community life.
Hermitages were very simple caves where ascetics lived apart from society.
As more and more monks arrived from the Byzantine Empire, these kinds of settlements evolved into lauras (or lavras), where a community of monks inhabited a system of caves surrounding a church.
Obviously the architecture of a laura was more complex than that of a hermitage, and the iconography was richer as evidenced from the number of valuable frescos found in the lauras.
As the lifestyle of the monks progressed from asceticism to community life, they began to live in coenobites, bigger and more complex settlements built over several levels.
The laura was associated with Byzantine monasticism; the coenobite with the Benedictine order.
Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the order, recommended a community life style based on prayer and work (in Latin: ora et labora) as a remedy against sloth, but avoiding the extreme sacrifices and the mortifications of the flesh, practices common among the hermits.
However, the origin of the stone churches is a phenomenon that cannot be explained solely because of the presence of the monks.
The churches are also an expression of the spiritual needs of a population of shepherds and farmers in communities scattered over a large area of land.
Observing the location of these places of worship, it is possible to retrieve precious information about the human presence over the centuries in that area.
The presence of a rupestrian church in an area now completely abandoned makes clear that the area had once been a thriving community.
Finally, the large number of rock-cut churches can be explained both as evidence of the presence of monastic life and of settlements scattered over a vast area in which every community had a church as its center.
Even though the monastic influence is very important in this area, it is necessary to make clear that some of these churches were actually sanctuaries, places of pilgrimage on some feast days; but, first of all, they were a point of reference for a secular community of shepherds and farmers.
During the 11th century the basilican model spread. The church of “Santa Lucia e Agata alle Malve” is a clear example of this model.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, church builders paid little attention to structure. There were no standardized plans and improvisation according to need was the order of the day. By the end of the 14th century, the golden age of the stone churches of Matera had ended and the newer churches of this period were of a simpler plan or just a repetition of the basilican model.
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, under the Franciscan influence, there was a new interest in the rupestrian churches.
Many were refurbished, sometimes completely altering the original structure.
Some were excavated, but with modest result, as they proved to be architecturally insignificant.
Beginning in the 17th century, many churches, especially those deteriorated beyond repair, were deconsecrated (and they still are) and completely abandoned became shelters for animal herds.
Some of these rock-hewn churches have recently been restored after a long period of complete run-down.
Many magnificent frescoes have miraculously resisted dampness, vandalism and neglect for many centuries and now, after a skilful restoration, they delight again with their priceless beauty.
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Rock-cut church of Santa Maria della Valle (or Vaglia), VIII century
Rock-cut church of Santa Maria della Valle (or Vaglia)
Rupestrian church of Cristo la Selva
Restored frescos in the rock-cut church of Santa Lucia alle Malve