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Monasterio de Santa Catalina

Written on: Sunday November 18th, 2007

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Arequipa, Peru 

Author: Julie 


Today is our last day in Arequipa and we?ve been putting off visiting the most interesting site of the city till today: the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Everyone we?ve talked to say it?s a must-see and to expect to spend about 4 hours touring the convent. 

First we had to pack up our bags and check-out of our room since we had a bus leaving Arequipa at 8:30 that evening. Our business done after a bit of blogging and a few last minutes errand, we were off to see this ancient walled city in the middle of Arequipa.  

In 1579, less than 40 years after the Spanish arrived to the city of Arequipa, the Santa Catalina Convent was founded by a rich window named Maria Guzman. The 20,000-square-meter monastery constructed from Sillar, a white volcanic rock quarried locally, is considered the most important and impressive colonial structure in the city. The continual earthquakes and tremors suffered by the region have forced changed in its structures and it therefore has some singular architectural characteristics. It suffered damage in the 1958 and 1960 earthquakes, and was restored and opened to the public in 1970, the 430th anniversary of the city?s founding in 1540. The nuns opened their doors to tourism to pay for the installation of electricity and running water as required by law, as well as help finance the cost of the earthquake repairs sustained 10 years prior. 

Each nun constructed a private cell within the cloistered convent where she could lead an isolated life, protected by the high walls sheltering her from the surrounding city. The tradition of the time indicated that the second son or daughter of a family would enter religious service, and the convent accepted only women from high-class Spanish families. Each nun at Santa Catalina had between one and four servants or slaves, and the nuns invited musicians to perform in the convent, gave parties and generally lived a lavish lifestyle. Each family paid a dowry at their daughter's entrance to the convent, and the dowry owed to gain the highest status, indicated by wearing a black veil, was 2,400 silver coins, equivalent to US$50,000 today. The nuns were also required to bring 25 listed items, including a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. The wealthiest nuns may have brought fine English china and silk curtains and rugs. Although it was possible for poorer nuns to enter the convent without paying a dowry, it can be seen from the cells that most of the nuns were very wealthy. The convent once housed approximately 450 people (about a third of them nuns and the rest servants) in a cloistered community. In 1871 Sister Josefa Cadena, a strict Dominican nun, was sent by Pope Pius IX to reform the monastery. She sent the rich dowries back to Europe, and freed all the servants and slaves, giving them the choice of remaining as nuns or leaving. There are 25 nuns currently living in the northern corner of the complex; the rest of the monastery is open to the public. 

Our tour began in the receiving room, at the entrance of the monastery, with couches and a few tables for receiving family guests. Next to it was a small room with hard benches, gated windows for receiving visits from guests and to administer blessings and to listen to the faithful, without being seen or touched. Many people who travel to the convent to hear the advice from the nuns. 

The next section we visited was the Noviciate or Novices Cloister. There new novice nuns who had not taken their vows would live in tiny barren cells. They had four years to take their vows or risk being kicked out of the convent and foresworn by their families. Once vows were taken, they could move into bigger cells, with servants, and more luxurious personal effects. Until then, they lived in the smaller cells, with a small window that needed to be open at all times so they could be watched by the attending nuns. Their days consisted of silence, prayer, and studies.  

We then moved on to the Orange Tree Cloister. A beautifully painted yard, with orange trees in the middle. All around the walls were painted an indigo blue and above were paintings copied from a book. Each painting was numbered and we noticed number 19 was missing. When the paintings were copied, page 19 of the book was missing, so goes the story. Here was where we saw the first cells of the sisters. Each cell had alteast one bed alcove. All beds were built into these nooks for earthquake safety. If a cell or apartment had more than one bed alcove then more than one nun lived there. It was common for families to have sisters or cousins living together, sharing servants. In each of these cells, there was usually a living room/bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom which consisted of a bucket, and sometimes a prayer room. The richer the family the more room the nun had with her.

From the Orange Tree Cloister, we moved on Toledo street. Down the small road, more like an alley, doors to various cells were aligned and the walls were painted a white with brilliant red geraniums decorating and adding contrast. Further down, we could the oldest section of the convent. The walls were painted in a gorgeous terra cotta color and had straw roofs. This is the original part of the convent.  

Walking along the Toledo Street, we popped out at the laundry. It was an ingenious system of a long aqueduct of running water with little piped holes leading to various laundry tubs. A nun just had to cup her hand in the running water and the raised water would flow down the tub into the laundry vat. We all had fun playing in the water.  

Continuing from the Laundry, we entered Burgos street which gave us nice views of the church. We entered more cells to view the various layouts, the kitchens, and the artefact pieces of the past occupants. It was interesting to see how each cell had its own individual layout, with each one having a different configuration to its kitchen. Some had little outdoor patios, some didn?t. Some had rooms above for this servants, others had little nooks in the kitchen where they slept.  

Then we entered the main kitchen. It was originally one of the first chapels in the convent, but it was converted into the communal kitchen in the 1700s. The huge room was covered in soot and in the middle there was a well. It still functioned until the last 1990s when a tourist fell in. For safety sake, they bricked it up and now it stands as historical piece. There were large copper pots, huge bread pans, and other old cooking implements. Kevin tried to lift one of the pots but he could barely budge. When it was full of stew, it took 5 servants to pick it up and move it. 

Next we visited the cell of Sister Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo who lived in the convent up until her death in 1686. In 1985, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Various miracles and predictions have been attributed to her. Her cell has a bit of a cult following and fresh flowers are brought daily. She lived a very austere life compared to most of the other nuns, who did not necessarily choose this way of life that was pushed upon by their family. Sister Ana on the other hand wanted nothing more than be a nun and believed in living a very plain life dedicated to Jesus. She eventually became the Mother Superior and had a communal sleeping room built where she expected all the nuns to abandon their cells, their servants, and their luxuries to all live in this one big room in silence and prayer. It was never used, the other nuns revolted against her and it is now the gallery. In the roofs are still the hooks which would have held the privacy curtains for each nun?s bed.  

We had a quick visit in the church but most of it is blocked off for the private use of the nuns. The off we went to the gallery to view some of the best works of art that had hung in the various cells. Also in the room was a beautiful embroidered cloak for the Archbishop. It was embroidered in heavy 22k gold thread and had taken the over a 1000 hours to fabricate.  

Unfortunately, the tour came to an end and we were free to wander around. So, Kevin and I grabbed our cameras and did a second tour, walking slowly from cell to cell admiring the plain but at same time luxurious life these women would have had. It was one of the most beautiful days we?ve had since the start of our trip and we recommend to everyone who are in Arequipa to visit.