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Santa Maria di Cerrate

Città del Salento - Lecce - Abbazia di Santa Maria di Cerrate

The foundation of the abbey is linked by tradition to the Norman Prince Tancredi di Altavilla who had seen in this area, during a hunting expedition, a deer, called ‘cervo’ in Italian, with the image of the Virgin Mary between the horns. Thus, he founded the Church calling it Santa Maria di Cervate, then Cerrate. Another theory has it that its name derives instead from the fact that the area, in Antiquity, was rich in a kind of tree called Quercus Cerris.

Already in 1113 the building is occupied by Greek monks and it is on this previous edifice that the Normans built the new complex. In 1531 it was donated to the Hospital of the Incurables of Naples, which will keep it until 1877. Afterwards, the church and its surroundings were modified and given an agricultural purpose until its restoration in the 1970s.

Città del Salento - Lecce - Abbazia di Santa Maria di Cerrate
Very little remains of the monastery, whereas the church, though some pieces are missing, still clearly testifies the artistic language of the time originating from the encounter between Oriental and Occidental worlds, a language that has characterized all of the Land of Otranto. The church, clearly Romanesque in style, has a Basilica plan, a gabled façade with a central rose window and blind arches all along the sidewalls. The portal is richly sculpted with decorative plant motifs and a thirteen-century porch with, on the arcade, scenes about the Virgin’s life. 

On the northern side, the porch built in the thirteenth century with figured capitals leaning against the Church is of great interest. Near the porch there is a well, in the shape of a rectangle, dating back to 1585.

The inside is divided in three aisles marked by four arches.The decorations are of considerable importance: the most ancient phase, of the end of the twelfth century concerns the area of the apses, faithful to the Byzantine style.

In the vault of the apse we find the Ascension and five Saint Bishops. The apsidal arch, together with the aisles’ arches are painted with ornamental pseudo-Kufic letters. Inside the arches are represented the profiles of Saint monks.

In the fifteenth century this decoration is overlapped by a second layer, in Renaissance style, with Madonnas and holy knights in courteous style, as it is possible to admire on the left aisle’s wall and in other frescoes which have been detached and are now preserved inside the adjacent Museum of the Arts and Popular Traditions of Salento, situated in the old mill of the complex.

The frescoes depict the Annunciation, San Giorgio who saves the Princess from the dragon, Sant’Eustacchio and the deer. This last portrait perfectly relates to the place’s legend, the Saint being a Roman general who converted himself to Christendom for having encountered a deer with a cross between its horns, Jesus’ persoCittà del Salento - Lecce - Abbazia di Santa Maria di Cerratenification.
Città del Salento - Lecce - Abbazia di Santa Maria di CerrateThe fresco, of which only a few traces remain, on the right side inside the abbey is worth looking at.
Back in time, a representation of St George defeating the dragon was depicted: the blocks of stone on which was painted the fresco were dismantled and reused, covered with a second layer of plaster which served as the basis for a new fresco. What we are able to see today is a true puzzle.
We will therefore have to, with our own imagination, put back the pieces together so to make the knight reappear defeating the dragon to save the princess. Inside the area of the monastery, it is also possible to visit an underground oil mill with a large presser and tanks for the collection of oil.


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