Matera is filled with rupestre churches in the old city and the surrounding territory.  A ‘rupestre’ church is basically one directly carved into the stone.  They vary greatly in size and design.  The ravages of time and the constant erosion of their tufo structure also have changed their appearance.

One in particular has recently drawn my attention.  The church of the Madonna of the Angels(Madonna degli Angeli) is situated  on a hill easily seen from the old city.   Dating back to the 12th century, it once contained one of the richest collection of frescos in the area.  Unfortunately it has been completely abandoned.  Time, vandals and art thieves have greatly diminished its previous glory.

I have even included it in one of my paintings of Matera.  It’s rubbly exterior is seen on top of the hill on the right.

The Two Churches

There are no longer any set paths that lead to the church.  It is about a 20 minute hike down into the ravine and up the hill to get the church.   The stream at the bottom of the ravine is easy to cross in the dry season.

At the bottom of the ravine

When arriving to the top, the scent of wild oregano fills the air.  The view of the Sassi(old city) is quite incredible.

At the top with the church on the right

From the entrance, one would not expect much.

Entrance to the church

But upon entering one is treated to a type of surprise that is quite common in Italy.  The discovery of something beautiful.

The apse with niche and altar

Affresco of Madonna and Child

The dating of the frescos are from the 12th century up until the 19th.  They have all suffered damage.  Graffiti covers most of the paintings.  Only the Madonna and child was spared.  The altar has been ransacked.  Several frescos have been literally ‘ripped’ off the wall by thieves.   You can see an example in the photo below.  The upper half the of the image to the left of the door was removed.

Church interior

Here is a detail of the fresco for Saint Anthony.  The vandals did not spare him.   Interesting note: were the plaster has chipped off you can see a trace of the sinopia(underdrawing).  It is that little black line that follows the contour of his head.

Damaged fresco

In the photo below you can see the under drawing more clearly.  It is from a lower portion of the same figure.

Trace of the 'sinopia' or under drawing

Despite its current state, a feeling of peace pervades the church.  The organic quality of how the architecture lives within the stone is special.  Its decay renders it romantic.  The structure was obviously much larger before.   Previous collapses removed the front of the church and destroyed a good part of the vault for a side room.  As you can see below:

Side chamber left of the apse

The apse can be seen directly in the center of the above photo.  My favorite fresco is of Santa Sofia.   It is on a pilaster just inside the current entrance.  A late addition that was built upon the existing rupestre church.

Affresco of Santa Sofia

The view out of the church perfectly frames a view of the cathedral of Matera.

View out of the entrance

Italy has such a rich cultural past.  The layers of history are so deep, especially in the south.   I am constantly making discoveries.  Each one reinforces my conviction that Art has the power to move  and enrich our life, even in a dilapidated state.