Abbey of Cerrate: art and memory

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Abbazia di Cerrate

More than once, we tried to visit the Abbey of Cerrate near Lecce. This time we finally got there thanks to the FAI days that the 19 and 20 March have ensured the opening of no less than 53 monuments only in Apulia. Among them the Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate only property Fai of our region, that is the only one who is among the places of rare beauty, often hidden and little known, saved from decay, oblivion and the ravages of time and of  man thanks to the Italian Environment Fund.

The visit to this abbey allows an encounter with art, history and legend. In fact, the history of the Abbey sinking into legend: it is said, in fact , that the monastery was founded by King Tancredi, Count of Lecce in the early 1100. He appeared the image of the Madonna, after chasing a doe in a cave during a hunting trip.
In fact, we discover during the tour that his foundation is probably even older and can be traced back to the twelfth century, when Bohemond of Hauteville son of the valiant Robert Guiscard , settled here a monastery of Greek monks, followers of rule of St. Basil the Great. The Basilian monks, repaired in Salento to escape the iconoclastic persecutions of Byzantium, then lived permanently Cerrate the mid-twelfth century, when it was bustling activity of a library together with that of a scriptorium.

By the time the Abbey was expanded to become an important monastery of the whole Southern Italy. Came under the control of the Incurable Hospital of Naples, was equipped in addition to the church, stables, accommodation for the farmers, a well, a mill and two underground oil mills.
In the early 1700s was sacked by Turkish pirates and later the complex was completely abandoned until the intervention of the Province of Lecce, in 1965. Since September 2012, the Abbey has been entrusted by the Province of Lecce in the thirty-year concession to the FAI, becoming so the first property operated by the foundation in Puglia. The restoration work in progress are also affecting the surrounding area from the green surrounding the Abbey. The second floor of the farmer’s house was an interesting rural history museum. Also visited the picturesque environments of the oil mills for pressing olives, obtained in the underground caves dug into the tuff.

Regarding the name of Cerrate is assumed to derive from “Quercus cerris”, a variety of oak that in the past was in so-called Lecce forest, which stretched around the city and was full of oaks and plants typical of the Mediterranean. At this point you may have a historical basis for the legend related to the birth of the Abbey through the possible existence of deer in Salento. In fact, it is documented that both Geoffrey of Conversano that the archbishop of Brindisi, in 1100, demanded the tithe on hunting deer and wild boar. After all this animal that today it is difficult to locate in the area, is depicted as well as the various icons found in the homonymous cave in Porto Badisco, even on the floor mosaic of Otranto, where is represented injured.
But it is not only the name of the complex to arouse curiosity. On entering the church remains dumbfounded in front of the wall on which are images of saints and knights overturned. The logical explanation is related to the frequent reconstructions over the years have affected the building. Apse are instead the oldest frescoes of clear Byzantine inspiration. On the northern side of the church, towards the middle of the thirteenth century, it was added the portico consists of 24 columns with interesting capitals, different from each other, of prevailing taste of the fantastic and the monstrous.
The roof of the nave is a truss supporting a trellis at sight, upon which the tiles. Relevant ciborium supported by four columns, while in the outer court, a short distance from the church, is placed the well on which are carved the coat of arms, a siren and, on the short sides, two masks.

When we go away we imagine the centuries of history lived from the Abbey, which over time has raised feelings, faith and fears, in the colors of a fresco or stone sculptures, testifying a fascinating journey as a silent and evocative isolated sentinel the olive grove.

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