Santa Catalina

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The monastery of Santa Caterina is something else.  Located in the heart of Arequipa, it is a citadel of sillar in the middle of a grand city.  Sillar is a porous stone made from volcanic rock and it covers old town Arequipa, making it look like a glowing white city.  Sort of.  I think it mostly just looks like a city.  But there is a great deal of whiteness-grayness.

The monastery was founded in 1580 by a wealthy widow who only accepted the daughters of Spanish aristocrats into her convent.  When they came they were expected to bring their dowry and trousseau along.  The monastery doesnīt mention this, but the first nuns lived in a lavish style (complete with slaves and other servants) and had a grand old time in their hidden city.  This behavior continued for three centuries until a strict Dominican nun arrived to straighten things out.  Then the monastery became its present self

The monastery has four streets, all named for Spanish cities.  Travis said Sevilla street even looked like Sevilla.  But donīt let this confuse you.  The streets are not straight or direct from one place to another.  The entire site is a maze full of secret hidey holes designed for the nuns to lead solitary lives.  Streets are painted with a rusty color over Spanish-style stucco.  Inside the cells - well, the actual cells are white and rather simple, although by no means lacking in comfort.  There are also a lot of strange paintings and disturbing bleeding Christs.  Latin America is way down with its blood and gore, let me tell you.  But there are simple wooden crosses hanging in alcoves and green crosses that look like cacti  in the little side gardens.  Theyīre pretty. 

Travis fell in love with the blue stucco walls and decided that we should have our house be that color.  I said no.  But it was a very pretty azure that invited us to come and see what it was hiding.  Often it was hiding a single potted plant or a bench.  Sometimes there was a staircase to nowhere.  We didnīt know if these were built that way on purpose or if they were blocked off when the tourists were allowed into the convent.  I wouldnīt mind having such a hidey hole in my house, but I can say with perfect assurance that I would never be a nun. 

Dominican nuns were, once they entered the convent, completely shut off from the world.  Their only communication with the outside world was through a double set of wooden grates.  If someone from the outside and a nun wanted to exchange something (not contraband), there were spinney sort of dumbwaiters that turned around until the person could take their something.  These were solid wood, mind you, and you could hardly see through the wood grates.  The grates were also used to hide the nuns from the main church in the Second Choir.  The nuns were under the floor level, and sometimes curtians were used to hide them further from the laity that entered the church.  But this room was particularly important to the nuns, because it was not only where they celebrated mass, but it was where they took their vows. 

Dominican nuns also believe in corporal mortification.  Think Silas from the Da Vinci Code, but instead of only wearing a barbed leg band the nuns wore entire vests.  Donīt get me wrong, they also had the leg bands and the cat-o-nine-tails.  Nice. The monastery tries to make this sound better by saying that such activities were only used with permission and for penance.  Donīt care.  Not cool. 

Okay, Iīm done with the disapproving.  Promise. 

What struck me about the monastery, although I didnīt realize it at the time, was that it had grass gardens.  I canīt really remember another time I saw real grass since, like, Guatemala.  And even then it was more jungle.  The gardens were beautiful and I definitely wouldnīt mind sitting in one for a while.  But they were fenced off, I presume, to protect the growing things.  Tourists are not good for growing things. 

We toured many courtyards, some of which had lovely paintings of Mary and Jesus in different situations lining the top portions of the walls.  I think the most famous courtyard is the first one, the Silent Courtyard, where nuns prayed, said the rosary, and read the bible in total silence.  Courtyards are invariably pretty and peaceful.  Also in the monastery is an interesting, enormous kitchen that even had its own well built right in.  They had flower-shaped cake pans.  The laundry was spiffy.  At the far end of the convent a stream of water flows down in a little rivulet, except when you want to do laundry.  Then you can make the rivulet overflow its bounds and it fills giant half-pots with water.  You might have to look at the photo.  But it was pretty cool looking, I must say. 

There are still nuns cloistered in the convent.  They are hidden from the public.  One of my sources says that, after the stiffening of the rules, all the conventīs money was sent back to the European families whence it came.  Thus the convent functioned much as it always had while everywhere else modernized.  Then, with the changes in city health codes, the monastery had to add electricity and running water.  Because they had no money, they opened to the public, which led the remaining nuns to hide away in a part of the monastery where I donīt even know where they could be.  You get a map.  It seems like you can go everywhere.  But you never see a nun.  Curious. 

I should also mention the beatified Sister Ana.  John Paul II beatified said nun in the 80s.  According to the story, Sister Ana lived pretty much her entire life in the convent, eschewing marriage and people.  You can go into her very own cell.  They have her barbed wire vest on display.  She died in 1686, so donīt think sheīs recently miraculous.  There are several miracles attributed to her, it seems all of which involve sickness, healing, and death.  I guess she was really good at predicting illness and death.  I have also heard that the man who painted her only portrait was deathly ill (with the cancer), and when he finished the portrait he was miraculously cured.  So there you go.  Sister Ana de Los Angeles lived in this very convent.  Woot.

At the end of the tour the convent has a zillion paintings on display, the majority of which are seriously disturbing.  I just donīt get the whole life-like blood and gore thing.  And Iīve heard all the reasons for it, so donīt go emailing me.  So I had to run away, while Travis perused the collection.  There was a really beautiful embroidered set of priestly robes.  I could handle that. 

I liked the convent, but it was, for me, a mix of utter discomfort and awe.  I was thus delighted when we left and I discovered a nice officer who let us take pictures of him with his stop sign.  Iīm collecting different stop signs, just so you know.  He was the jolliest man in the universe and shouted "whiskey!" every time we took a picture.  Apparently thatīs a Peruvian thing. 

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travelprincess1 on

Just to let you guys know, you (either one, I don't really know who did what) take fantastic pictures! Congrats on getting your blog nominated! Keep up with the pics, shutterbug(s)!

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