Following the Colca Canyon we took some downtime in Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa, also known as the White City due to the many buildings constructed from local volcanic rock during the colonial era. Plaza de Armas is encased on three sides with vast stone colonnades and the Basilica Catedral completes the picture.
During our time in Arequipa we reacquainted ourselves with some touches of home that have been sorely missed, primarily coffee and food with flavour. Arriving as we did on Valentines Day, Rose did the right thing and took me out for a slap-up three course lunch at a restaurant adjoining the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, no flowers or chocolates mind…
We waddled to the main gates of the monastery after a fantastic meal that had been rounded off by some of the best puddings in recent memory. Not knowing what to expect going into the monastery, having seen few pictures and reading little, we were instantly taken aback by the vivid colours and quaint human scale of the place. Too many monasteries have a feeling of overwhelming ‘mighter than thou’ austerity. Here you fully expected two nuns to round the corner on their way to mass, such was the quality of the monastery's preservation.
The Patio del Silencio was where nuns came to pray and reflect under vows of total silence. Two chapels off the cloister have now been repurposed as gallery spaces, but you could easily imagine nuns using these ante rooms for quiet contemplation and penitence.
The cloister beyond was used by the novices at the very beginning of their training. The exposed volcanic stone has been beautifully cared for as well as the frescoes depicting religious lessons in the arches above.
The Claustro de los Naranjas is named as such for the orange trees but the walls of this area are painted a vivid cobalt blue. I suppose when the oranges ripen there is a striking contrast of colour.
While the cloisters are beautiful the highlight of our visit to the monastery was the organisation of the cells and communal areas in which the nuns lived.
Multi room, high ceilinged cells (in many cases domed or barrel vaulted) with ornate furniture and private courtyards, oriented off meandering cobbled streets, a world apart from the bustling city outside.
The cells boasted kitchens complete with clay ovens, an enviable setup even by modern standards.
The old communal laundry area with a gravity fed water system for filling the many wash basins.
The Spanish/Moorish style of the buildings demonstrated what it is possible to achieve when building within a single city block, especially when you can enjoy wealth and autonomy while doing so. After his visit, Alvaro Siza described the monastery as “a magnificent lesson in architecture.”
It is worth noting however, that there were fewer constraints when constructing the monastery when compared to the construction of the city outside. No street vendors or shoe shine boys here! The monastery was controlled by the Dominican Order and closed to all besides clergymen and nuns and their visitors. It was unlikely that you would be bothered by your neighbour playing music until 3am.
The nuns did engage and trade with their fellow citizens, but were always able to separate commerce from their private lives. Indeed until the monastery opened its doors to the public, I daresay most citizens had no idea what lay beyond those powdery white walls.
Many of the women who joined the monastery were of noble birth, explaining the relative opulence of their living arrangements compared to those outside. Their ability to stay in the monastery was determined by their families ability to pay which in turn made this an extremely wealthy institution. The nuns used this economic stability to provide education, charity and meals for Arequipa’s most needy citizens, a source of strength for those with no other means of support.
In the final gallery space there was an exhibition of scenes from the life of Santa Catalina, adapted from a series of European engravings by an anonymous Cusco master. Santa Catalina is depicted wearing the black habit of the second Dominican Order, but she was in fact a member of an affiliate order who wore white habits. This was pointed out on the display boards in the gallery, as an example of a patron of the arts altering the facts of a story to suit their own narrative. The monastery is of the Second Dominican Order and so asked the artist to paint Santa Catalina accordingly.
The monastery was charming and pristine and despite the poor weather we enjoyed every minute of our visit. However this neat and beautiful environment was created by simplifying and removing constraints therefore removing the rough edges of the outside world.
We all love to walk and daydream around places like the generous streets of Monasterio de Santa Catalina, but we should remind ourselves that they are controlled enclosures removed from society. While many of us long to live in idyllic places such as this, precious few of us will ever have the chance.