Saturday, November 9, 2013

Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Arequipa, Peru

In a city renowned for its churches, museums and monasteries, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina is outstanding and a not to be missed visit. Occupying a whole block and guarded by imposing high walls, the 20,000-sq-meter complex is like a citadel, a complete miniature walled colonial town in the middle of the city. Built to house the daughters of the wealthiest families who wished to enter into religious service, the monastery was inaugurated on October 2, 1580, under the name of St. Catherine of Siena. It was opened to the public in 1970 after more than 400 years as a cloister. After passing the “silencio” (silent) arch we are in a beautiful courtyard surrounded by rooms. This is the Novice Cloister where the novice nuns lived for four years, taking a vow of silence and pledging their life to God’s work. Their families were expected to pay a dowry of 100 gold coins per year, a lot of money in those days but their families could afford it. Although it was a cloistered convent and remained that way until 1970 the nuns were the daughters of aristocrats and at the very least, did not take their vows of poverty seriously. After becoming fully fledged nuns, they moved into the main areas of the monastery. As we walked down Cordoba Street it is flanked on both sides by “cells” that were the living quarters for the nuns. Each had her own servants and lived extremely opulently surrounded by fine linens, gold and silver. On Toledo Street we pass the communal laundry area where the servants washed the clothes in huge earthenware jars. The water was channeled into the jars via pipes using water from the snow melt. On Zocodober Street is one of the most visited and popular rooms of the convent. This cell belonged to Sister Ana de Los Angeles Monteaguda who lived in the convent until her death in 1686. Almost 300 years later in 1985 she was beautified by then Pope John Paul II. Various miracles and predictions are attributed to her and in her cell there is a shrine and a book which you can add your name and any blessings you would like. Naturally I made my request in English but I am sure the good sister will understand! All her personal items are also on display in her room. One of the last rooms we get to is the art gallery. Two huge rooms in the form of a cross house about 400 pieces of restored art and sculptures. Murals along the walls depict scenes from the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The only word we could think of was “magnificent”. There are a couple of access points where you can climb up narrow winding stairs to the roof. From that vantage point, we could see the volcanoes which surround Arequipa and gaze across the rooftops of the neighboring buildings all the way to the main square and across the river to Yanahuara and Recoleta. There are 20 nuns who still live in a section of the convent which once housed 500, albeit more simply and in seclusion. The convent has been beautifully refurbished with period furniture and paintings. There are flower filled gardens, spacious patios, granite fountains as well as arches and narrow streets. The tile-roofed buildings are painted in traditional white, rusty orange and a brilliant cornflower blue. Wandering along the streets and courtyards, it is easy to soak in the meditative atmosphere. There is a guided tour in a variety of languages but we wanted to wander around ourselves and take our time in the streets and alleys that make up the monastery so we chose the self guided tour which with the map and outline we were given was enough. At every street, square and room there were plaques explaining the area so we did not feel we missed any of the history by not taking the guided version. In fact, the guided groups looked rushed to us and we found them to be a little annoying. The constant chatter marred the silent beauty. It was much more relaxing and meditative to wander the cobbled streets alone. It took us a little longer than expected about 3 hours but we really enjoyed the visit. Oh, and this is the place to come to take your wedding photos. We met three different wedding parties complete with photographers and when we stepped outside there was a line of vintage cars which had brought the various parties including a 1936 Studebaker (we think) a 1930 Ford and a 1940’s Peugeot. Quite a collection.

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