Being included in the top 25 most popular places of interest in South America by Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards 2013 is by no means a small feat. Located just two blocks from the impressive Plaza de Armas Square in Arequipa, you will get your first sight of the vast outer walls of the Santa Catalina Monastery. Even if you have already seen the many colonial buildings of Arequipa, this convent is one that should not be missed off your list. Stretched across a whole block, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina is one of the most captivating and charming religious buildings in Peru. This fascinating monastery is not your usual monastery and religious building; occupying 20,000 square meters the monastery is almost a fortress within the city of Arequipa.
A brief history of Santa Catalina Monastery
Built in 1579, although there is still a small religious community living within the monastery’s walls, it mainly served as monastery for nuns between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Constructed using volcanic sillar stone, the complex is organized into cloisters, living quarters, a plaza, a gallery and a chapel. The construction and convent was funded by the Viceroy Toledo and the wealthy María de Guzmán, who later entered the convent with one of her sisters whilst donating all of her riches to the community. During its heyday, the sleeping cells were luxurious with what seemed to be like little attention paid towards the vows of poverty and silence. The wealthy novices had to first pass strict entry requirements which were known throughout Peru as some of the strictest as they had to prove their Spanish origins as well as pay a dowry of at least 1,000 gold pesos. As the monastery grew in popularity, more wealthy women began to enter the monastery with some bringing with them their servants and items from their houses. Whilst they renounced poverty, they enjoyed their luxurious English carpets, silk curtains, silver cutlery, living as they did on the outside but within the walls of this now lavish monastery.
Visiting the Monastery
Visiting the monastery during the day, with its colorful painted walls set against the blue sky of Arequipa is a beautiful way to enjoy the Monastery. However, two nights a week you can also take advantage of exploring the Santa Catalina Monastery grounds by candlelight as the nuns once did centuries ago. There are three main cloisters to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, the Novice Cloister, Orange Cloister and the Great Cloister.
Once you have passed under the arch with ‘Silencio’ (silence) inscribed on it, you will see the Novice Cloister and its courtyard open up in front of you. It was within this cloister than the novice nuns took a vow of silence and to fill their lives with work and prayer. The nuns would devote four years of their lives to the Novice Cloister during which their families continued to pay a dowry of 100 gold coins per year, further adding to the wealth and up-keeping of the monastery. Once the four years were over, the women could decide whether or not to continue devoting their lives to religious service or bringing shame to their families and leave the convent to join the rest of the Arequipan population.
Those that chose to take their vows, passed onto the Orange Cloister of the Santa Catalina Monastery which gets its namesake from the charming orange trees that stand at its center and apart from adding to the beauty of this cloister, they are supposed to represent renewal and eternal life. Whilst visiting the Orange Cloister you will be able to peek into the Profundis Room, which is where the dead nuns of the convent were mourned. Aligning the walls are the intricate paintings of the deceased nuns, with artists being allowed only 24 hours to complete the portraits as painting the nuns whilst they were alive would have been out of the question. The quaint streets of Córdova, Toledo, Burgos leading away from the cloister, house some of the living quarters of the nuns, as well as a cafe and communal kitchen. Arriving at Zocodover Square, the nuns would gather here to exchange their handicrafts such as homemade soaps and baked goods. Close by is the cell of the legendary Sor Ana, a nun of the convent that became famous due to her extremely accurate predictions about the future as well as a handful of miracles she is said to have performed until her death in 1686.
With the chapel of the monastery on one side and the art gallery on the other which used to serve as a communal dormitory, the Great Cloister is a truly elegant and attractive construction. This building takes on the shape of a cross and houses murals depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Exploring the intriguing and scenic Santa Catalina Monastery is a certain highlight during your visit to Arequipa and Southern Peru which is why we have made sure to include it in all of our itineraries that visit the elegant colonial city of Arequipa. By day or by night, this attractive monastery is waiting for you to explore its architecture, history and stories that flowed out from behind these magical convent walls.