The rock church of SANTA LUCIA ALLE MALVE is the first female monastic settlement of the Benedictine Order, dating back to the 8th century, and the most important in the history of the city of Matera. A community that through its three subsequent monastic offices of Santa Lucia alle Malve, Santa Lucia alla Civita and Santa Lucia al Piano has been an integral part of Matera’s life following its historical-urban development over the course of a millennium.
The external front of the former monastic complex develops along the rocky wall with a series of entrances that lead to as many internal cavities. The environments of the Community are identified by its presence, sculpted in relief at the top, by the symbolism of the martyrdom of Saint Lucia: the chalice with the two eyes of the Saint. The entrance of the church, on the right of the complex, is highlighted by squared blocks of tuff that draw the line ending in a pointed arch on whose bottom, within a lunette, there is the liturgical symbol of the Saint.
A CHURCH IN RUPE of considerable size that develops in three distinct naves which despite having undergone heavy upheavals, after abandonment by the monastic community, has left many of those signs to allow, with a pinch of imagination, to reconstruct its development planimetric and architectural.
Of the three naves that articulate the internal space, the one on the right, in which the current entrance is, has always remained open to worship, so much so that still today on the day of Saint Lucia, on December 13th, a solemn mass is held here, while the other two naves were transformed into houses and deposits until the 1950s: a transformation that involved almost all the rock churches in the two Sassi districts, as they were replaced, liturgically, with religious buildings erected in the new district of the Piano. These rock churches, deconsecrating, were transformed into houses, service rooms, deposits etc. with a process that began in the eighteenth century and continued until the dawn of the twentieth century.
Originally, the central nave had to have individual liturgical spaces with an ascending trend from the level of the entrance door, up to the apse where the altar was located.
The presbytery, of all three naves, that is, the part reserved only for priests, was enclosed by a series of columns, currently severed, which descended from the vault offering a touch of high suggestion increased by the mobility of the light emitted, at the time, from oil lamps.
The central nave was enriched by an ICONOSTASI, i.e. that architectural element belonging to the liturgical spaces of the Greek Orthodox cult, which constitutes a partition between the nave of the church (classroom) and the presbytery part, embellished by the thin columns descending from the vault and from a base enriched by a series of frescoes that are currently found, sawn in squared blocks that make up a grotesque puzzle, in the structure of a flint which is located in the left nave. A massacre occurred during the transformation of part of the church into a home.
Remarkable, in the flat vault the lenticular cavities that enrich the pre-priestly area: they are symbolic domes highlighted, in their size, by a series of concentric circles that give a sense of depth.
An introductory speech is necessary to explain the presence of ancient frescoes, some even of a millennium, so beautifully preserved: they perfectly retain their colors and their subjects only if performed with a precise technique, well known in the Matera area by the many active fresh masters over the centuries. This ancient artistic expression involved the laying of a very wet layer of plaster on which a cardboard or other material model was placed with the shape of the subject to be finely pierced. It was then dabbed with a small piece soaked in coal dust thus leaving the trace on the light plaster. This explains the reason why in some cases, and often in the same church, there are two frescoes, perhaps with different colors but with the same shape, often even in a positive and negative way, as the same cardboard was used as a template but perhaps turned to the contrary.
Subsequently, the fresco was definitively outlined and colored, using colors obtained by mixing lime, tuff powder, sometimes organic substances with vegetable pigments derived from flowers and plants and with colored powders derived from the shredding of particular minerals and soils.
All this had to take place, however, as long as the substrate was still damp, drying out in fact it fixed the color in a practically indelible way, as we can still observe today.
Of great historical and artistic importance are the FRESCOES which still partially decorate the walls of the nave, which have returned to their original splendor after restoration.
LA MADONNA DEL LATTE dated around 1270 and executed by the same master who painted “La Madonna della Bruna” (in the Cathedral) named for this “Maestro della Bruna”, shows us the Madonna breastfeeding the baby, in a gesture of tenderness who is probably represented to reaffirm a dimension closer to man than that authoritarian and vindictive God as he was conceived in the Middle Ages. In order not to touch the blasphemy the fresco painter painted the breast of the Madonna in a decentralized way compared to the real anatomy and small size.
In the niche next to it, SAN MICHELE ARCANGELO dated 1250, in its function as messenger of God, wears the ‘laros’, a surcoat studded with precious stones, symbol of the ambassadors of the imperial court of Byzantium and holds a seal with a Greek cross in one hand inscribed. In the other hand he has the labaro and under his feet the dragon representing the devil twists, a Latin Christian iconography with harmoniously fused oriental Christian elements.
On the large pillar that separates the left aisle from the central one, the fresco of a saint with the miter in his head and in the left hand the pastoral both symbols of the episcopal authority, dated around the second half of the thirteenth century according to some scholars SAN GREGORIO , for others San Donato, also by the Maestro della Bruna.
Above, the ascetic face of an unknown saint peeks out, dating back to the first half of the 12th century. A mutilated Saint, who survived the reduction of the square column carried out for the execution of the underlying San Gregorio. A destruction from which only the head was saved, probably due to a devotional act of the fresco.
In the intrados of the arch, to the left of the current entrance, San Benedetto (just to testify the Benedictine origin of the complex), and Santa Scolastica, both founders of the great monastic orders that flourished in that period, while next to San blessed is Saint John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, covered with the typical camel skin with a scroll in his hand with a passage from the Gospel of John. All three frescoes are dated end of the thirteenth century.
The wall of the RIGHT Aisle is embellished with a large panel depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, in which Christ symbolically places a crown on the head of the Virgin to represent a moment in which after 1200 the importance of the Marian cult increased. . On the sides in this panel, on the right San Giovanni Battista and San Pietro, on the left San Lorenzo and Santo Stefano. In the upper part, on the right, the Deposition of the fourteenth-century Christ in which we can see Giuseppe D’Arimatea who supports his body, while , on the scale, Nicodemus detaches his left arm from the cross and the Virgin brings her right arm close to her lips.
On the left San Nicola, bishop of Mira, in the classic iconography handed down to us over the centuries.
They are frescoes dating back to the Angevin era around the fourteenth century, a particular pictorial style that developed in the thirteenth-fourteenth century in Italy during the historical events that had the protagonists of the members of the French d’Angio family.
On the side, Saint Lucia, protector of sight, dated 1610. Below is a San Vito with a dog placed at his feet, martyred under the emperor Diocletian, considered patron against chorea, a disease of the nervous system, popularly called ‘dance of San Vito ‘, a disease that manifests itself with sudden contractions and bizarre involuntary movements of the muscles of every part of the body. In an era in which medicine found no healing remedies, we relied on healing for the benevolence of San Vito. On the left a seventeenth-century Madonna and Child.
Outside the church, on the right, a steep staircase leads to the plateau above the former monastic complex where there is the necropolis known as the “barbaric cemetery” which must have impressed Carlo Levi a lot, so much so that he wrote it in his book-report on the bad living conditions in Matera in the 1940s that “The dead are above the living”.
These are TOMBS of the Lombard era excavated in the rock base, with a human dimension but which today seem small, since the average stature of man, at the time, was far less than today.
The sepulchral pit was accompanied by a tooth called “risega” which ran along the upper edge to make the tomb slab adhere to it.
To preserve them from decay, the Superintendency for Antiquities has made them cover with pebbles and cement, preserving their original shape.
The remains of a Bronze Age settlement with the characteristic holes of the poles that supported the huts and the skeletal remains of the inhabitants were also found in this place.