Le Chiese Rupestri
M A T E R A / I T A L Y
Escape from the Ottoman Empire
What would the major religions of the world be if they were not at odds with each other? We might not recognize them if all of a sudden they decided to get along. It is an endless cycle of “My gods are better than your gods.” Evidence of this exchange can be seen all over the world. From the converted interiors of Hagia Sophia to the Buddhas which replaced the Hindu Shiva-Lingas of Ankor Wat, architecture can be repurposed to conform to opposing beliefs. It’s really quite extraordinary.
In the wake of centuries of intolerance lies a history of diaspora architecture where small groups can gather in refuge. In the 12th century, Byzantine monks were chased out of Turkey. In keeping with the spirit of religious persecution, the Ottomans decided to make life difficult for the monks. Standard approaches were employed to convert said monks. They were offered conversion or execution. Instead of entering a bloody and most likely fruitless war, the monks migrated north. One group of monks settled in a quiet valley in Southern Italy.
The monks found new homes in a sheltered valley. Scattered across Matera are natural caves. Formed from loosely packed limestone, they offer shelter from the elements and are soft enough that they could be enlarged with only hand tools. Unlike the facade of Petra in Jordan, these smaller churches were not designed to make a statement. In fact, the lower profile they were in appearance the better.
These enclaves ranged in size from a few meters to a cave large enough to park a small truck. The monks, eager to make peace with the locals, exchanged education for the chance to live freely. They were permitted to use some of the caves for religious ceremonies. Over the years, the caves were enlarged, decorated, and carved into small churches, called in Italian Le Chiese Rupestri.
If there were ever churches that embodied the Japanese sense of Wabi-Sabi, or the art of the imperfect, these churches would be it. They are humble in design and finish. Every angle is rounded and there is not a single straight column in any of the 200+ churches. Unlike the more notable facades of The Pantheon, St. Peters or the many duomos from Milan to Palermo, these churches might be missed at first. In fact they were not designed to stand out, but to blend in.
Once inside they reveal a quiet solitude that rivals any of the great churches of Europe. It is a complete misunderstanding that greatness in architecture can only be achieved with scale and money. Great architecture creates atmosphere, everything else is secondary. These walls still collect water from the mountain side, which gives them the distinct damp smell of wet stone. The frescoes which adorn some of the walls have remained in amazingly good condition considering that they are exposed to the weather all year round.
This May, our Matera Workshop was led into the caves by local expert Renato Favilli. An economist by education and profession, he loves history and particularly Le Chiese Rupestri. He took us through the many details of the churches. One that was quite compelling were tiny crosses carved into the stone walls. Resembling many of the graffiti carvings often found on antiquities, they were totally consistent. Renato explained that the crosses were carved and re-carved at every mass. The deeper the carving meant the more masses it celebrates. It was a small touch of humanity that made everyone feel more connected to the space. Tracing our fingers over each carving, we all made guesses on how long it would have taken to make the very deep crosses. As you can imagine, we never agreed on an answer. Maybe there actually is something about religion that invites us to debate endlessly.
As we climbed up the hillside, the silence of the cave was replaced by the chime of cow bells. We were off to meet the legendary cheese maker Gaetano Scarilli, whose cows graze in the valley around the churches. It is a unique convergence of centuries old architecture and the equally old traditions of cheese making. But more on that story later in the week.
How to visit
Fortunately we will be back in Matera next May for a workshop and the opportunity to explore more of the history that remains hidden in plain sight. If you would like to visit the churches on your own, Renato Favalli can be reached through his email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Trip Advisor page.
If you are interested in joining us for the Matera Workshop next year May 13-15, 2016 you can register at email@example.com
Leica Camera from Photo Village
A special thanks to the gentlemen at Photo Village for the Leica M240 and the 35mm f/2.0 Summicron used in this shoot.