The Rupestrian church referred to as Santi Stefani represents an important case in the “underground” architecture of the province of Terra d’Otranto.
It is characterised by a basilical layout with three naves divided by pillars.
The pictorial decoration, executed in various phases from the late 10th to the late 14th centuries AD, covers the apses, walls and surfaces of the pillars.
It includes images of saints, the Virgin with Child and an apocalyptic scene in the central apse.
The dedication of the church to St Stephen is indicated by the art and by a votive inscription near the image of a patron described as a “servant of St Stephen”.
The church has a basilical layout with three naves separated by sturdy quadrangular pillars, terminating in three apses, while the lateral walls have a succession of shallow niches of irregular shape.
Near the entrance, on the left, work that probably coincided with the pictorial season of 1379-80 led to the building of a wall between two columns in order to obtain a room for storing agricultural equipment, in which the original paintings were destroyed.
In addition, the floor of the church was lowered by about 60 cm.
The latter measure must have substantially modified the original volume, transforming the perception of space and the pictorial decoration.
The paintings also cover the faces of the pillars, which have numerous images of saints and the Virgin with Child.
Compared to their above-ground counterparts, the underground churches are generally characterised by simplified iconographic programmes that have no Christological cycles but are focused on the representation of saints.
The programmes of underground churches often contain multiple images of the saint to whom the church is dedicated.
Another distinctive aspect is the presence, inside and immediately outside the church, of one or more tombs, showing both its explicitly funerary function and its private dimension.
The latter aspect is also shown by the funerary inscriptions and by the portraits of patrons positioned below the images of the saints.
Something that needs to be put to rest is the widely believed romantic idea of Byzantine monks persecuted by iconoclasts, fleeing to Southern Italy and leading a hermit's life in caves.
In Puglia, unlike Calabria, Sicily and the Amalfi coast, there are no known hermits; the monks were cenobitic, that is, they adopted the communal formula pioneered by St Pachomius in the 3rd and 4th centuries in Coptic Egypt and they lived in purpose-built monasteries.
This fairly common belief was probably partly the result of the famous work by Alba Medea, “Gli affreschi delle cripte eremitiche pugliesi” (“The Frescoes of the Hermits' crypts in Puglia”), published in Rome in 1939.