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Posted by Tim on Aug 28, 2009
The Monasterio de Santa Catalina

The glorious city of Arequipa lays nestled among the Andes mountains in southern Peru. It is a stunning place, a visual symphony in white and blue.

'A wondrous sky floats above Arequipa, PeruThe white is found in many of the buildings, which are composed of a pale volcanic rock called sillar. So many of the grand old colonial buildings are composed of sillar that Arequipa is known in Peru as La Ciudad Blanca ("The White City").

The blue is found in the sky, and the sky here looks like the sky in no other place.

Maybe it's the altitude – Arequipa sits fairly high up, at about 2,400m (a mile and a half or so). Or maybe it's the aridity: this place is just astonishingly dry. It receives almost no rainfall at all, and seems to be eternally devoid of any trace of clouds whatsoever.

The color of the sky seems to surpass blue, attaining an almost luminescent, mother-of-pearl quality. Believe me when I say that photos don't do it any justice. Sometimes, it seems to lend an other-worldly glow to all that lies beneath it.

Nowhere is this more true that at the convent.

A Colorful History

'The gaily-colored walls of the Monasterio de Santa CatalinaWhile so many of Arequipa's historic buildings are a gleaming white, the walls of the convent are different. Many of them are painted in festive reds and blues, making the place look absolutely beautiful, but lending it a decidedly non-somber tone.

Which brings us to the history of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina.

It was founded in 1579 by Dona Maria de Guzman, the wealthy widow of a man named Diego Hernández de Mendoza. Guzman became the first prioress of the convent when construction was completed the following year.

Back then, the second daughter born into every family was expected to become a nun. Guzman's convent set itself up catering to only the highest-born women in Peru. It was a convent of socialites, made up of the wealthy daughters of powerful families.

To keep out the riffraff, there was a cover charge of sorts. To enter the Monasterio, you had to make a sizable donation. The more you donated, the higher your position within the order.

'The now-quiet hallways of the convent have born witness to some pretty interesting things over the centuriesIt was possible to enter without making a donation, but you came in as a nun "without a veil," which meant you were basically going to be doing menial labor and looking after the other nuns for the rest of your life. If you could muster up 1,500 gold pieces (around $30,000 in today's money), you could wear a white veil, which meant you were going to be able to live pretty well. For double that, though, you got to wear the treasured black veil, the highest status available. The nuns in black veils lived the lives of the idle rich, attended by slaves and servants and surrounded by the poshest luxury.

(To maintain that luxury, the convent started requiring that new nuns bring with them a specific checklist of items, including at least one painting, one statue, and one lamp.)

Rumors and Reputations

'The Monasterio began to develop a reputation over the yearsCenturies of wealthy Peruvian families sent their daughters off to the Monasterio, where they could rest assured they wouldn't have to do any pesky work. Slowly but surely, the place began to develop a reputation.

The lavish parties the sisters kept throwing didn't help matters. The place was starting to feel a little less than devout to some in the broader Catholic community, and the structured class system it enforced (once you entered the order, you could never again change or improve your status there) rankled some.

Rumors began to spread. It was said that some of the sisters were pregnant. More shocking (and almost certainly untrue) was the story that one of them had given birth in the convent, smothered her infant, and buried his body within the walls of the convent. It was claimed that the baby's skeleton was unearthed years later.

True or not, stuff like this wasn't exactly good PR for the Catholic church, so Pope Pius IX decided to take action.

The Last Big Party

Her name was Sister Josefa Cadena, and from what I hear she was nothing short of terrifying. A strict disciplinarian (who, not incidentally, did not share the privileged upbringing that so many of the convent's sisters had in common), she was sent to Arequipa by the Pope to investigate.

Walking through the now-quiet hallways of the Monasterio, Jessica and I enjoyed imagining what it must have been like for the sisters, had they known she was coming. We imagined them throwing one last big party, before "Mom" came home and ruined everything.

Which is basically what happened.

What Cadena found was much more of a social club than a convent, and she took immediate action. She sent the contents of the Monasterio's overflowing coffers back to the "motherhouse" in Europe, and set about reforming Santa Catalina into a real convent. The veils were eliminated, and everyone was granted the same status within the order.

She was shocked to discover twice as many slaves and servants as nuns, and promptly freed them all. Those who wished to remain were granted full status as nuns, equals now with their former masters.

The Monasterio Today

'Arequipa's sky floats above Santa CatalinaIn 1970, the cash-strapped convent opened its doors to the public, becoming the museum it is today. It is also, however, still a functioning cloister, with about 25 sisters living in a roped-off portion of the complex.

It's a quiet, surreal place. The walls glow eerily in red, blue, white, and green. Preserved rooms tell stories about the lives that the sisters lived, centuries and centuries ago. Whatever the case may be of Santa Catalina's somewhat checkered past, today there are few places in the world that feel more devout, more contemplative.

In the distance stands the snow-covered peak of El Misti, watching over the monastery as he's done for over four centuries.

And laid out above it all is that spectacular Arequipa sky.

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Jessica the hedgehog
September 8, 2009 at 11:37am
I love the photos on this post, Tim. Just seeing them takes me back there. It was such a gorgeous, gorgeous place. :)

Is this where we found the little room with the guinea pigs too?

Tim the hedgehog
September 9, 2009 at 6:13am
Heh, forgot about that. Yup, that was here. :)

"OMG! How cute! Look at them all!"


"Wait a minute… this is the pantry, isn't it?!"

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