Rock Church of Madonna delle Virtù


The Church of the Madonna delle Virtù is part of a huge monastic complex built in 1000 and is unusual in that, despite complying with all the regulations and having well-defined architectural spaces, the basilica is cut entirely from solid rock.  The plan is that of a basilica, with a nave and two aisles articulated by large pillars, which support ogive vaults containing a women’s gallery with two orders of superimposed arches and twisted columns.
The nave apses are semicircular, whereas the vault above them takes the shape of a whole cupola inscribed with a Greek cross.
Nowadays, following the construction of the new road through the Sassi, the entrance to the church is through a side aisle, since half the left aisle and the passage leading to the crypt of San Nicola dei Greci had to be removed, thus destroying the original plan of the church.


The frescoes inside the church are in a poor state of repair, but it is possible to make out a C18th Crucifixion in the central apse (Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St. John), probably originally by a good hand, judging by the draping of the clothing and the balanced composition.  There is another Crucifixion in the right aisle, which appears to be C14th or C15th century and late Gothic in style.
Halfway along the right aisle there is the entrance to a rough-hewn quadrangular room that was used as a tufa quarry, bearing the marks of the ancient technique for excavating limestone.
The church provided a refuge for the penitent nuns from St. Mary of Acre, brought to Matera by Archbishop Andrew in 1198, apparently in an effort to rekindle the faith of the local citizens.  Halfway through the C13th, the nuns moved to the convent of Santa Maria ai Foggiali, that has since taken the name of San Giovanni Battista, but they kept up the monastic buildings as a refuge for pilgrims.  The building was opened for worship in 1674 and the interior altered: two of the original six pillars were removed and the present entrance created.
The church and the complex of San Nicola dei Greci, above it, are now used as a prestigious exhibition space where important contemporary art shows are held.