The rock-church of S.ta Lucia alle Malve is the first female monastic Benedictine settlement, dating from the C8th, and it is the most important one in the history of the city of Matera. The community was an integral part of the life of Matera, and its headquarters was uprooted three times, moving from Santa Lucia alle Malve, to Santa Lucia alla Civita and then to Santa Lucia al Piano, in tune with the historical and urban development of the city over a millennium.
The exterior of the former monastic complex extends along the rock face with a series of access points leading to an equal number of internal cavities. Relief sculptures of the symbols of the martyrdom of St. Lucy, the chalice containing the Saint’s two eyes, attest to the Community’s earlier presence here.
The entrance to the church, on the right of the complex, is demarcated by squared blocks of tufa, which trace its line, ending with a pointed arch within a lunette inside which the liturgical symbol of St. Lucy can be seen.
It is a rock-church of considerable size, extending over a quite distinct nave and two aisles. The events that befell it after it was abandoned by the monastic community have left clear enough evidence to enable us to reconstruct its planimetric and architectural evolution, albeit with a little imagination.
Of the nave and two aisles that articulate the internal space, the right aisle, where the present entrance is located, has always been open for worship, and even now on 13th December, the feast day of St. Lucy, a solemn Mass is still held here. The nave and left aisle, however, were turned into habitations and depots and remained as such until the 1950s. Almost all the rock-churches in the two Sassi districts suffered a similar fate as they were gradually replaced, liturgically speaking, by new places of worship in the new Piano district. These deconsecrated churches were turned into habitations, service areas, depots etc. from the C18th onwards, until the beginning of the C20th.
Originally, the central nave must have contained single liturgical spaces ascending from the entrance door to the apse where the altar stood.
The presbytery for the nave and both aisles, meaning that space reserved solely for the clergy, was enclosed by a series of columns, now much diminished, that descended from the vault in a highly suggestive manner, which the flickering light from the oil lamps did nothing to dispel.
The central nave was embellished by an ICONOSTASIS, that architectural feature commonly seen in liturgical places belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church. This acted as a screen between the nave of the church (the hall) and the presbytery, decorated with slim columns descending from the vault, the base of which was embellished with a series of frescoes that have since been carved up into square blocks that now lie in a sort of grotesque jigsaw puzzle inside a hearth along the left aisle. This outrage was perpetrated while part of the church was being turned into habitations.
The lenticular cavities in the flat vault over the presbytery area are worthy of note: they are meant to symbolise cupolas, their proportions suggested by a series of concentric circles conveying a sense of depth.
And now a word of explanation about some extremely ancient frescoes, some of which are over a thousand years’ old, that have survived remarkably well: their colours and subject matter have been perfectly preserved thanks to a particular technique, employed by many of the Master fresco-painters around Matera over several centuries. This involved spreading a layer of very wet plaster on the wall, to which a paper model was affixed, onto which the outline of the subject to be painted had been finely punched. This was then dusted with a rag covered with coal dust, leaving a clear line on the pale plaster. This explains why, in some cases, and often even in the same church, one may come across two frescoes painted in different colours, but otherwise identical. Sometimes they are in positive and sometimes in negative, the same cartoon or paper model having been used to obtain the outline, but possibly turned the other way round.
The lines of the fresco would then be drawn in and the colours applied. These were obtained by mixing lime, tufa dust and various organic substances with vegetable pigments derived from flowers and plants and with coloured powders obtained by grinding certain minerals and clays.
All this had to be achieved while the plaster was still wet, because the colours set almost indelibly as they dried, as may still be observed today.
The FRESCOES that still, in part, decorate the walls of the nave are of great art historical interest and have now been returned to their original splendour after conservation work.
The MADONNA DEL LATTE, dated circa 1270, painted by the same master fresco painter who produced the Madonna della Bruna (in the Cathedral), thus earning himself the nickname “The Maestro della Bruna”, shows the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Child, a tender scene probably chosen for its human angle rather than for any association with an authoritarian and vindictive God, as he was thought of during the Middle Ages. In order not to offend, the artist has painted the Virgin Mary’s breast off-centre and rather smaller than is anatomically correct.
In the niche next to it is a statue of St. MICHAEL ARCHANGEL, the Messenger of God, dated 1250. He is wearing a laros, which is a sort of tunic studded with precious stones, symbol of the Ambassadors of the Imperial Court of Byzantium and he holds a seal engraved with a Greek Cross in one hand. In the other hand he carries his standard and the dragon, which represents the Devil, is seen writhing at his feet. The iconography is Latin Christian with Oriental Christian elements that blend well together.
On the big pillar that separates the left aisle from the nave, there is another fresco by the Maestro della Bruna of a Saint wearing a mitre, holding his crozier in his left hand – both Episcopal symbols, thought by some to be ST. GREGORY and by others to be St. Donato. The fresco is dated around the second half of the C13th.
Above peeps the ascetic face of an unknown Saint, belonging to the first half of the C12th, mutilate. One assumes that the fresco painter must have decided to spare the head, as some sort of act of devotion.
In the intrados of the arch, on the left of the present entrance, representations of St. Benedict (as proof of the Benedictine origins of the complex) and St. Scolastica, both founders of great monastic orders that flourished at the time, face each other. Next to St. Benedict is St. John the Baptist, Christ’s precursor, wearing his typical camel hair tunic and carrying a scroll with a verse from the Gospel According to St. John. All three frescoes are late C13th.
A large painting of the Coronation of the Virgin hangs on the RIGHT AISLE wall, in which Christ is seen symbolically placing a crown on the Virgin’s head, representative of a time, post 1200, when the Marian cult was on the increase. St. John the Baptist and St. Peter are shown on the right hand side of the panel, with St. Lawrence and St. Stephen on the left. Above, right, is a C14th Deposition of Christ, in which Joseph of Arimathea is seen supporting Christ’s body while Nicodemus, on a ladder, is taking his left arm down from the cross while the Virgin Mary brings his right arm to her lips.
On the left, St. Nicholas, Bishop of Mira, in the age-old classical iconography.
These frescoes belong to the Angevin period around the C14th, which was a particular representational style that developed in Italy during the C13th – C14th at a time when members of the French d’Anjou family were caught up in various historical events.
Beside it, St. Lucy, the patron saint of sight, dated 1610. Next is a painting of St. Vitus, martyred under the Emperor Dioclecian, with a puppy at his feet. He is the patron saint of chorea, an illness that affects the nervous system, popularly know as ‘St. Vitus’ Dance’, in which the body is suddenly overtaken by involuntary muscle spasms and bizarre jerking movements. In the days before there was no curative medicine, people prayed to St. Vitus for deliverance from illness. On the left is a C17th Virgin and Child.