The Cathedral of Matera was completed in 1270. Located in the part of the city known as the Civita, which was the first inhabited nucleus of the Sassi, in the highest and most prominent part of the city, the Cathedral was built on the site of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St. Eustachius, which was consecrated in 1082. Building work on the foundations of the nearby Archdiocesan Palazzo del Seminario during the early part of the C20th revealed that the Cathedral had been built on an artificial embankment so as to elevate it still further (it is clearly visible from all parts of the ancient city and the surrounding countryside).
Deep trenches were dug as building work progressed, which gradually revealed all the various ancient inhabited layers of the city within a 12 metre area, providing an enticing snapshot of early life in Matera. Mediaeval dwellings, a small early Christian church and habitations belonging to the same period were uncovered, not to mention Byzantine findings such as coins and architectural remains, another layer of Roman dwellings, Greek tombs complete with the grand, ceremonial urns that formed part of the typical funerary accoutrements, and fragments of painted ceramics typical of the first Iron Age.
The building is Apulian-Romanesque and its exterior provides a rich tapestry of greatly symbolic references to the spiritual life of the times. The main façade looks out over the valley of the Sasso Barisano and there is a statue of the Madonna della Bruna, the city’s patron saint, surrounded by delicate floriate carving over the main door, with St Peter in the niche on the right of the door and St Paul on the left. The minor patron saints of Matera, St. Eustachius and St. Teopist, are in niches on the external walls of the building, and the statues are all the work of the Persio family of Matera, who were very active during the mid Cinquecento.
The central rose window is made up of mullions and archlets, in a style that was extremely fashionable at the time – the wheel of fortune, symbolising the luck of the draw. Above it there is a representation of the Archangel Michael Overcoming the Dragon; he is surrounded by figures that, judging by their garments, would appear to belong to the up-and-coming social classes of the period – there is a rich man to the right, an artisan to the left and a nobleman below.
The four small columns and the twelve half columns at the top are probably a reference to the four Evangelists and the twelve Apostles, with the other figures serving as decoration for architectural features (such as the brackets supporting the two side windows), whose function is presumably simply to caution against any possible moral dangers that might be lurking along any good Christian’s journey through life. The mermaid (left window) symbolises the desires and mortal passions liable to ensnare us, and cause us to abandon the path of righteousness, and the eagle (top bracket), a rapacious devourer of animals, symbolises the danger of being devoured by sin.
The side façade of the church has two monumental doors: the first is the Porta di Piazza with extremely interesting decorative features. The small panel at the top carries a bas- relief of the prophet Abraham, chosen by God to spread His word, and the father of the three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islamism and Judaism. It suggests a possible connection between them, a message that was probably intended for the communities belonging to all three religions who lived in the city between the C13th and C14th. On one side, there is a Benedictine monk deep in prayer, and on the other, a Benedictine monk engrossed in a book, an obvious reference to the Benedictine rule of ora et labora. The door is also decorated with typical, intricate Apulian- Romanesque foliate motifs.
The next door is known as the Porta dei Leoni, after its two statues of crouching lions, symbolic guardians of the faith. The top of the door is decorated with protruding pinecones, floriate motifs and angels’ or girls’ heads, symbolising the purity of the Church, as well as serving the “apotropeic” purpose of warding off bad luck.
The finely engraved glass window between the two doors echoes the decoration of the latter: it marks the ancient sepulchre of a Saracen judge, attested to by the Latin inscription beneath.
The bell-tower is 52m high, quadrangular in shape and is divided into two parts by a balcony: the lower half consists of three storeys, each adorned with mullioned windows with two lights, and the top one tapers gradually and is crowned with a pinnacle with a orb and cross.
The seven E flat bells in the bell-tower ring out during services, their peals reverberating over the whole of the ancient city.
As you enter the Cathedral in Matera, the contrast with the exterior is instantly manifest. Nothing has been preserved in its original state, apart from a few important frescoes and the fine mediaeval figured capitals of the 10 columns, each of which is extremely ornate and highly individual. Nothing else has been left untouched as the centuries have progressed.
The plan of the church, in the shape of a Latin cross with a nave and two aisles is 54m long, 23m high and 18m wide, and at some time during its lengthy history, the apse was pulled down and redesigned to make it longer.
Stuccoes and decorations were added during the Seicento, only to be gilded later, during the C18th.
It was even seen fit to cover the original roof with a false wooden ceiling in 1719, into which three canvasses by Battista Santoro of subjects dear to the Materan culture were inserted: St. John of Matera and St. Eustachius in the side medallions, with The Visitation in the centre. The frescoed Stories of the Virgin Mary in the wall panels directly below the ceiling are by Anselmo Palmieri.
To the right of the main entrance is the famous fresco of the Last Judgement, which is the only picture original to the Cathedral’s mediaeval decoration to have survived. Painted by Rinaldo da Taranto, a master fresco painter who was active towards the end of the Duecento, it was discovered quite by chance while conservation work was being carried out on the C17th paintings that had been hung over it. In the lower half of the fresco, the Archangel Michael is seen running through the sinners in Hell (shown as a group being attacked by serpents) with his sword. Within the group, there are characters identifiable as a King, a Pope, and some Benedictine monks etc., whose function is to demonstrate the equality of all souls after death. In Purgatory (the upper half), the scene is altogether less animated, with purifying basins decorated with disturbing images of limbs and heads appearing out of the mouths of large fish: symbolising the rebirth of purified souls. On the orders beneath the fresco, there is a procession of C15th saints: St Peter Martyr, St Julian, the Virgin and Child and St Luke.
Along the right aisle, respectively, on the first entrance portal (Porta di Piazza), the representation of the Madonna delle Grazie between Ss. Ilario and Giovanni da Matera is by Domizio Persio (1592), while on the second door (the Porta dei Leoni) there is a fine painting of S. Gaetano by Carlo Rosa (1652). There is a Polyptych by Vito Antonio Conversi.
The high altar, which originally came from the Abbey of Montescaglioso, is made of costly white marble, above which is Fabrizio Santafede’s “Cona Grande”, acquired in Naples in 1580. The Virgin is shown in the centre, surrounded by St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist, St. Biagio, St. Donato and Saints Peter and Paul, with the Holy Trinity in the oval at the top. Scenes from the Gospel are illustrated in the panels below.
The inlaid Wooden Choir behind the altar is the painstaking work of Giovanni Tantino of Ariano Irpin (1453). It has 50 choir stalls and is covered with a dense network of sculpted wooden foliate motifs, fantastic animals and holy subjects highly reminiscent of Franco-Flemish culture, Islamic decorative traditions and illuminated Benedictine manuscripts. Immediately on the right, on leaving the choir, a distich on the frame of the door to the bell-tower shows the date of the church’s completion, 1270.
Slightly further on, at the end of the left transept, the front of the altar to St Michael, carved by Altobello Persio in 1539, shows the saint in the centre, with the Madonna and four Saints in the niches. On the predella, there is a bas-relief of the Last Supper surrounded by delicate Renaissance friezes.
Continuing to the left, the crib in the chapel known as the Chapel of San Nicola al Cimitero, sculpted in 1534 by Altobello Persio and Sannazzaro da Alessano in polychrome limestone, is dear to the hearts of the Materani because it contains features of the city: the castle at the top resembles the Castello Tramontano and the utterly realistic shepherds with their flocks (sheep, goats and guard dogs) serve to remind us of the city’s strong agrarian bias in 1500.
Removal of many of the side chapels commenced in the early 18th century (there were as many as 33 of them in the mid Cinquecento), but the Cappella dell’Annunziata has survived as a splendid example of how these must once have looked. It is the last chapel along the left aisle, and is thought to have been by Altobello Persio in the mid Cinquecento. It consists of a coffered ceiling and niched walls, with a statue of the Virgin Mary and the Angel on the altar. There is a Pietà in the lunette above, and statues of SS. Roch and Catherine of Alexandria.
The first altar along the nave is worthy of special mention, and contains a fresco of the Madonna della Bruna (1270), guardian of the city. There are those who believe that the epithet “Bruna” is a reference to the dark-skinned face of the Madonna, but it is more likely to derive from the late mediaeval word “brunja”, which translates as “cuirass” or “defence”, and would appear to be an allusion to the protection exercised over the city by its Patron. The statue is greatly worshipped by the Materani, who celebrate their Patron Saint with a spectacular and unusual festival each year on 2nd July.