The Basilica of Santa Caterina, one of the most outstanding monuments of Romanesque art in Puglia, was built between 1383 and 1391 by the will of Raimondello Orsini del Balzo.
In one of his many journeys, he went to the top of Mount Sinai to pay homage to the body of St. Catherine: according to legend, on leaving, he kissed the Saint's hand, tearing her finger with his teeth. On returning to Galatina he brought with him the finger of the Saint as a relic and thought of raising a temple of the Latin rite in her honour in this city.
It had to be elegant and sumptuous and become illustrious enough to eclipse all the other sacred buildings of Greek rite already existing. Back in Italy, he brought the relic that was set in a silver reliquary, and is still preserved in the church treasure. The building, after Raimondello's death in 1405, will be completed by his wife, princess Maria d'Enghien, and then by his son, Giovanni Antonio.
It has three cusps, underlined by three-lobed blind arches. The main portal has the prothyrum supported by two columns resting on stylophor lions, while on the architrave it bears a bas-relief depicting Christ among the Apostles. Interesting is the decoration of the three concentric bands of the portal and the rose window, finely carved in a radial pattern.
Divided into five naves with walls in which slightly pointed arches open, with low barrel-vaulted side aisles. The central nave is divided into three spans covered by ribbed cross vaults and separates from the lateral aisles by means of walkers. The capitals, with a floral subject and with human and animal figures, are of rare beauty, even if what attracts the most attention is the pictorial decoration. The entire cycle of frescoes develops from left to right, in a rotatory sense and is certainly more interesting in the central nave.
The Apocalypse scenes are frescoed along the walls of the first bay and on the counter-façade, which constitute the largest cycle of the whole church. They introduce the narrative in the sails of the first bay, evoking the most important themes and the main allegories of the book of St. John.
In the second bay the Stories of Genesis are frescoed, on the two side walls, and, in the vault, the Seven Sacraments. In the third, the Angelic Hierarchies are represented in the vault, while the Stories of the life of Christ are represented on the walls. On the walls of the presbytery, a cycle of seventeen frescoes is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria and her life, while the frescoes in the vault represent the Evangelists and Doctors of the Church.
In the choir, which does not present any type of decoration except for a series of noble coats of arms, the cenotaph of Giovanni Antonio Orsini del Balzo rises, while that of Raimondello is located on the left side of the main altar, in the presbytery.
Both the pictorial cycle of the central nave and the stories of the Virgin in the right nave were commissioned by Maria d'Enghien and therefore can be dated between 1416 and 1443, the year of death of the princess. The quadrangular cloister is adjacent to the church, completely rebuilt between the 16th and 17th centuries, also entirely frescoed.
The preciousness of the pictorial decoration, combined with the solemnity of the space, classify the Church of S. Caterina as "1st category national monument" already in 1870 and then elevated to the Pontifical Minor Basilica in 1992, an important building in the artistic panorama of South Italy. The Church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria is still the most splendid religious monument in the province of Lecce. Those who enter are struck by the broad lines of this majestic and severe temple, with its luxurious decorations and the weapon of the Balzo Orsini, which is replicated a hundred times.