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The Private Monastery of Nuns of the Order of St. Catherine of Siena (known as Santa Catalina Monastery), located in the center of the city of Arequipa
, is one of Peru
's most important religious complexes. It was founded on 10 September 1579 with the support of the Viceroy Francisco Toledo, who granted the necessary licenses. But the most important figure in the early years of the monastery was Doña María de Guzmán, a rich young woman who, having no children, decided to retreat to the monastery still under construction and transfer all of its goods to its order. Four plots owned by the city of Arequipa were ceded to the monastery. They cover more than 20,000 square meters and are located a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, in the heart of the city. On 2 October 1580, a great mass was celecrated, during which Doña Maria Guzman formally took orders and was recognized as the founder and first prioress, marking officialy the opening of the monastery. For 400 years, until its opening to public in 1970, the absolute enclosed monastery has been home to hundreds of nuns.
The Santa Catalina Monastery is like a small city with narrow streets and brightly painted cells (blue, red, yellow) that look like small houses. Due to the frequent earthquakes that hit the region
, the different buildings of the monastery suffered several destructions, repairs and reconstructions throughout the centuries. But its style has always been essentially colonial, although with clear creole influence. Unlike other remnants of colonial Latin America, an obvious fusion of Spanish and native elements can be found in Santa Catalina.
Some buildings of the monastery are of particular interest. The Main Door of the Monastery is adorned with a relief of St. Catherine of Siena, under whose patronage the monastery was founded. It is carved into the solid wall of ashlar over 4 meters in height that borders the whole convent. The simplicity of forms and color of the door contrasts with the colorful and cheerful indoor environments.
The Visiting Room allowed the cloistered nuns to communicate with the outside. It was the only acceptable form according to the rigid rules of the monastery. Communication was done through double and narrow windows, which were divided in small compartments so not even the hand of a child could pass. So physical contact with visitors was totally avoided. Furthermore a senior nun (called "listening nun") was present in the room, who not only oversaw discussions between family and nuns, but also watched the packages that were delivered to them.
Bigger than the Visiting Room, the General Visiting Room was exclusively used by the Mothers of the Council (Prioress, Subprioress, Novice, Secretary and Archivist). They required a private setting to address the matters of operation and governance of the monastery.
The "Silence" Patio was used by the nuns so they can gather to pray the rosary and read the Bible in complete silence.
The "Novitiate" Cloister was used for the training of women who wanted to be nun. It has a series of paintings for the training of novices. The paintings, besides helping to teach the novices, allowed them to understand and remember the meaning of each part of the Litany. They were very helpful, since the majority of women who entered the monastery had a poor education, then few could read or write.
The "Orange Trees" Cloister, built in 1738, owes its name to the presence of orange trees. The three crosses located in the midst of the cloister are part of a tradition of the Santa Catalina Monastery where religious represent the Passion of Christ every Good Friday.
The "De Profundis" Room was used as a funeral parlor for the wake of dead religious. You can still see two funeral chariots used to carry corpses. You can also observe a total of thirteen paintings with representations of religious. Twelve of them have closed eyes as they have been painted after their death. Only one of the religious has her eyes open, Sister Juana Arias. Very poor, Sister Juana de San José Arias entered the monastery without dowry. One day she was found dead on her knees, eyes open, with an open breviary in her hands, as in ecstasy. And so was she portrayed.
The Laundry was built in 1770 when Arequipa
was supplied in water by ditches. It consists of 20 half jars (large clay pots), formerly used for storing grain, corn, or wine, but which in this case served to wash clothes. The water ran through a central duct, which was diverted to each jar by placing a stone. At the bottom of the jar, a cap was placed and then removed after having washed the clothes. The water then flowed into an underground duct that led to the river.
The Kitchen has the particularity of having a very high ceiling in form of dome, as it was certainly destined to be or has been used as a chapel. Its walls has been entirely darkened with smoke from coal, wood and other fuels used for cooking, despite an opening in the ceiling. Next to it yo can find the "Hall of Sweets", which served as the first major communal dining room, after the reform of 21 September 1871, when the mandatory common life in the monastery was introduced. You can still see original utensils used in past time.
Zocodober Square is known for its beautiful fountain, built in ashlar. Its name comes from the Arabic word "souk" which means barter or exchange. Indeed, all Sundays religious gathered in the square to exchange yarns, fabrics or other objects that they made themselves.
Since 2000, the "Mirador" offers tourists the possibility to have a perfect view from a whole part of the monastery. From there, you can also see the majestic volcano Chachani.
The Main Cloister, built between 1715 and 1723, is the largest monastery cloister. It has 5 confessionals located on its left side. Around the cloister you can find are paintings intended for the preparation, education and religious indoctrination of the religious because, as mentioned above, most could not read or write. There are a total of 32 paintings, 23 refer to the life of Mary and 9 to the public life of Jesus.
The Bell Tower was built in 1748. It has four bells that face each of the four street that surrounds the monastery.
The monastery has a beautiful old church dating from about 1660 but which had to be rebuilt several times due to the frequent earthquakes that hit the region of Arequipa
. You can see the beautiful main altar, with delicate religious motif. In the "High Choir", the nuns of "white veil", "donated" and "converts" gathered to attend divine services and Eucharistic celebrations. It has an ancient and very beautiful large European organ. In the "Low Choir", the nuns of "black veil" participated in the recitation of the canonical hours (vespers, matins and lauds) and little hours (prime, terce, sext and none) and the celebration of Holy Misa. It is interesting to mention here that the nuns of Santa Catalina were classified into three types : nuns of black veil were women who entered the monastery providing full dowry and who were primarily spending their time in prayer. Nuns of white veil were entering the monastery providing half dowry and were sharing their time between prayer and manual labor. Finally, the donated, who provided no dowry, were engaged in household chores, as an expression of humility.
The ancient Dormitory of the monastery is now an Art Gallery and houses more than 100 paintings. You can see one of the most important examples of religious art of the continent such as works of the Cuzco School of painting, the highest expression of the fusion of the two cultures : Inca and Spanish.
The monastery has six streets named after Spanish cities, for their resemblance to them : Malaga, Cordova, Toledo, Seville, Granada and Burgos. But those names are relatively recent, dating from 1941.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the monastery had more than 300 nuns and maidservants. The most famous nun who lived in the monastery is Sister Ana de los Angeles Monteagudo. She was given to the monastery at the age of 3 years to begin with her education and training (it was mainly a moral and religious training). At the age of 10 or 11, her parents decided to marry her. But being at home, she had a vision of St. Catherine of Siena, who showed her the habit of the Dominican nuns. She then decided to return to the monastery, despite the strong opposition of her mother (her dowry was paid by her brother). She received the vows and took the religious name of "Angels". By late 1648 she achieved to be Prioress of the monastery. Her spiritual relationship with the "Holy Souls" allowed Sister Ana to announce the death of various personalities and religious. Each of her 68 prophecies has been fulfilled, which led her contemporaries to begin a process of beatification few months after her death, on 10 January 1686. The process was finally completed in 1985, after 299 years. It is said that after Sister Ana's death, it was not necessary to embalm her body, as it has a pleasant smell.