The Abbey of Santa Maria delle Cerrate, almost lost in the solitude of the countryside of the territory of Squinzano, a few kilometers from Lecce, was founded at the beginning of the twelfth century by the Normans. A local legend has it that the temple was built in the place where Tancredi d’Altavilla, during a hunt, found an image of the Virgin at the foot of a deer. From deer the denomination (uncertain) Cervate, then changed to Cerrate.
Today we can admire, of what was an important Basilian monastery, among other things the site of a famous scriptorium, a building of cult much remodeled in the following ages.
The external decoration of the church with thin pilasters and small arches appears characteristic of the Salento area, while the rich thirteenth century portal is of French taste; the interior of the Basilica was covered with frescoes between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, according to a continuous activity of embellishment of the complex that, at least until the sixteenth century, was an important and active center of religious and cultural life.
The complex, later, was transformed into a farm, returning only recently to be a cultural reference point for the area: the restoration of the church and the surrounding environment has allowed, in fact, the preparation and the arrangement of an interesting Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions of Salento.
The Church is presented as a basilica with three naves, of which the lower left is connected to the thirteenth-century portico. In correspondence of the central aisle a small rose window can be admired from the rich historiated portal. The latter, dating back to the end of the twelfth century (or at most at the beginning of the 13th century), already appears at the first impact influenced by the French architectural tradition. The entrance door is framed by a minute and elegant decoration borrowed from the vegetable repertoire.
The figural elements of the archivolt, well decipherable and distributed on six segments, tell the Infancy of Christ from the Annunciation to the Birth.
The position of the Annunciation, which acts as a tax for the entire cycle, reflects the fundamental role that the announcement given by the angel Gabriel to Mary is within the exegesis of iconography. Reflection of the Annunciation, the Visitation follows the iconography of the Near East, played on the physical contact between the Virgin and Elizabeth that does not happen here in a frontal way, being subordinated to the convex structure of the stone block.
A listello in key to the arch bearing the star, binds and separates at the same time the presence of the Magi and the next scene of the Nativity as an element of mediation between ancient and new Wisdom. A “familiar” atmosphere, almost “daily”, is repeated in the final panel, dominated by the figure of the midwife bent over the basin in which Jesus is immersed. In the figure of small size and almost squashed in the inside corner of the tile we can recognize san Joseph.
The plastic decoration is concentrated in particular in the porticoed loggia on the side of the church, built during the thirteenth century and supported by 24 columns surmounted by as many capitals, all different from each other, which offer the visitor a rich repertoire of stories. The pictorial decoration of the Church, on the other hand, is located in situ and part exposed – since 1975, after being detached – in the Museum.
Inside, there are five saints with the book in their hands occupying the lower part of the central apse; while, in the basin, the Ascension stands out, saints represented in full figure in the undergrowth; other scenes unfold in the lower level of the perimeter walls, mixing tradition and protagonists of both the East and the West. The baroque style altar dedicated to Sant’Oronzo has unfortunately made some of the frescoes not visible on the right wall, overlapping with them.