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Published: April 14th 2011
The Santa Catalina de Siena Convent is an important landmark in Arequipa. Known as 'the city within a city' it is a large complex, closed off from the city by high walls. It was founded in 1579, less than 40 years after the Spanish arrived in Arequipa. The founder of the monastery was a rich widow, Maria de Guzman. Since the tradition of the time was that the second daughter in a family should enter religious service the nuns were typically young girls from wealthy Spanish families. The parents of these girls paid a dowry for their daughters, much as they would if the girls were to be married. These dowries could be up to 2,400 silver coins and the nuns were also required to bring 25 listed items, including a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. The wealthier girls also took with them luxuries from home including fine English china and silk curtains and rugs. For the most part the nuns continued their old lifestyles, taking slaves and servants with them, inviting musicians into the convent and hosting parties and celebrations.
While the lavish lifestyle of these nuns was very out of keeping with religious orders and certainly frowned
upon I have some sympathy for the girls taking their orders. To enter a closed convent, leaving behind the outside world and all ties and connections with friends and family must be an incredibly hard choice to make if one has a religious vocation and a deep faith, but to be told to do so because tradition demands... I don't blame the girls for trying to take a piece of their old lives with them.
Life for the nuns of Santa Catalina changed drastically after the Vatican recieved word of their un-nun-like behaviour. 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 option to remain as nuns themsleves.
The convent suffered from the recurrent earthquakes in Arequipa and at times the nuns themselves were forced to repair the architectual and structural damage.
In 1970, when the civic authorities insisted the monastery install electricity and running water, the now poor community of nuns elected to open the greater portion of the monastery to the public in order to pay for the work. The
few remaining nuns continue to live a cloistered life in the north corner of the complex.
The building itself is beautiful. The convent is built of the locally mined sillar and the walls are vividly painted russet or blue. Tiny winding streets lead to the nun's cells, each a small house with several rooms and a walled garden.
I began my visit in the main courtyard. After passing the waiting tour guides and a few tourists forming into groups I entered a realm of silence. The first courtyard is framed by white painted arches in the russet walls, potted geraniums dotted along the edges and growing around the tree in the centre. I walked into the novice's cloister, another pretty garden courtyard surrounded by arched walkways, the simple brick ceilings contrasting to the painted frescoes adorning the upper parts of the walls.
I walked on to the orange tree cloister, the terra cotta hues of the walls suddenly giving way to a peaceful blue corridor which leads to a courtyard containing the orange trees and green painted crosses. As I wandered around the edges the air was filled with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony which fitted perfectly with the bright blue sky,
simple architecture and flower bestrewn walkways.
The convent covers 20,000 squared metres and I spent over two and a half hours wondering around the network of covered walkways, courtyards and cells. Many of the cells are completely decorated as they were when the nuns still lived in them, kitchens are restored and gardens carefully tended. The narrow streets, mostly devoid of other people, lead from one pretty scene to another picture perfect view. The idea of the convent being a city within in a city is fairly accurate as the nuns houses are situated on different little streets, and from most streets the main church can be glimpsed as well.
There is a disconcerting feeling of having stepped back in time in the convent, and apart from the odd distraction of another camera holding jeans clad figure, I had the feeling of being competely removed from the modern city outside the walls. The hushed silence of the empty streets and houses seemed to hold time still and I explored the twists and turns of the labrinyth-like streets in peaceful quietitude.
I visited the church, climbing to the rooftop where I could see across the city outside the walls and see
the towers of other churches, and all the way to the Yanahuara district. I also entered the cell of Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo, little different in appearance to the many other cells but famous because its occupant is a named saint. Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo was born in 1595 and first entered the convent as a three year old. She spent most of her childhood within the convent's walls, refused marriage, and returned to enter the novitiate. She rose within the nun's community, was elected Mother Prioress and instituted a regime of austerity. She is credited with healings and accurate predictions of the future. According to legend her body was exhumed 10 years after death unchanged and even in death her miracles continued as those who touched her body or possessions were healed of their aflictions. She was beatified in 1985.
Towards the end of my visit I saw the art gallery filled with period art discovered within the convent and from there I finally returned to the bustling world outside.
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