Santa Catalina Monastery

When my guide and I arrived, the line to get in was huge! This was the last Sunday of the month, the day when admission goes from 40 to 10 soles for Peruvians. Bad timing! But having a guide meant I could bypass the line. However, I had to wait half an hour for an English speaking tour guide to gather a group.

During my day tour last week of Arequipa, I also got the opportunity to visit this monastery–which is still a working home for about 20 nuns! The Monastery of Saint Catherine is a monastery of nuns of the Dominican Second Order, located just a couple blocks from the Plaza de Armas. It was built in 1579 and was enlarged in the 17th century. The over 20,000-square-meter monastery was built predominantly in the Mudéjar style (Moorish or Muslim style as seen in the Iberian peninsula) and is characterized by its vividly painted walls of red, blue and gold. The nuns who still live here are in the northern corner of the complex; the rest of the monastery is open to the public.

The foundress of the monastery was a rich widow, Maria de Guzman. The tradition of the time indicated that the second son or daughter of a family would enter a life of service in the Church, and the monastery accepted only women from upper class Spanish families. During part of the monastery’s history, the higher level nuns were allowed their own private rooms with opulent sitting rooms, like this one. Other times it was more austere.
This was handmade by the nuns. Jesus’ hair is REAL–taken from one of the novices, when her hair was cut before taking her vows.
Silence! After passing under this arch, novice nuns were required to zip their lips in a vow of solemn silence and resolve to a life of work and prayer. Nuns lived as novices for four years, during which time their wealthy families were expected to pay a dowry of 100 gold coins per year. At the end of the four years they could choose between taking their vows and entering into religious service, or leaving the convent – the latter would most likely have brought shame upon their family.

At its height, the monastery housed approximately 450 people (about a third of them nuns and the rest servants) in a cloistered community. In the 1960s, it was struck twice by earthquakes, severely damaging the structures, and forcing the nuns to build new accommodation next door. It was then restored in stages by groups including Promociones Turisticas del Sur S.A. and World Monuments Fund and opened to the public. This also helped pay for the installation of electricity and running water, as required by law. Notice the bed. Though the ceiling is covered by a curtain, it is built as an arch, a safer place in an earthquake.
This is where the bodies of the nuns were displayed before burial. The walls are covered with portraits, taken after death, of a few of the nuns who lived and died here. Artists were allotted 24 hours to complete these posthumous paintings, since painting the nuns while alive was out of the question. It was considered too vain.
Graduated novices passed onto the Orange Cloister, named for the orange trees clustered at its center that represent renewal and eternal life. This cloister allows a peek into the Profundis Room, a mortuary where dead nuns were mourned. Paintings of the deceased line the walls. Artists were allotted 24 hours to complete these posthumous paintings, since painting the nuns while alive was out of the question.
In 1871 Sister Josefa Cadena, O.P., 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 either remaining as nuns or leaving. In addition to the stories of outrageous wealth, there are tales of nuns becoming pregnant, and amazingly of the skeleton of a baby being discovered encased in a wall. This, in fact, did not happen in Santa Catalina, and there are rumors of the same story in the nearby Santa Rosa monastery, as well.
This is the laundry. Broken pots that once held wine or oil were sawed in half to use for scrubbing clothing. Notice the water running down the middle. By placing a stone to stop the water’s flow, you could fill the pot. There’s a drain in each, usually stopped up by a carrot or piece of potato.
Diverting the water into your pot is easy!
This is the national flower of Peru. It is also, a sacred flower of the Incas. It is called cantuta, although in Cuzco people know it more by its Quechua name, qantu. It is native to the Andes of Peru and Bolivia between 1200 meters above sea level and 3800. It is said that the Incas found in it sacred essences that made water stay pure longer.

Each family paid a dowry at their daughter’s admission to the monastery. The dowry expected of a woman who wished to enter as a choir nun–indicated by wearing a black veil—and who thereby accepted the duty of the daily recitation of the Divine Office, was 2,400 silver coins, equivalent to about $150,000 (U.S.) 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.

This was once the old chapel, but it was converted to a kitchen. Heading down Burgos Street toward the cathedral’s sparkling sillar tower, visitors may enter the musty darkness of the communal kitchen that was originally used as the church until the reformation of 1871. Just beyond, Zocodober Square (the name comes from the Arabic word for ‘barter’) was where nuns gathered on Sundays to exchange their handicrafts, such as soaps and baked goods. Continuing on, to the left you can enter the cell of the legendary Sor Ana, a nun renowned for her eerily accurate predictions about the future and the miracles she is said to have performed until her death in 1686.
The oven where bread was baked. The interior of the kitchen is black, from years of cooking fires, and it was difficult to take photos.

The Great Cloister is bordered by the chapel on one side and the art gallery, which used to serve as a communal dormitory, on the other. This building takes on the shape of a cross. Murals along the walls depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.



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I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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