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Santa Catalina, the colonial convent at the heart of Arequipa


Built in the 16th century, the huge convent resembles a private citadel within Peru’s picturesque third city.

Nuns from the city’s wealthiest families lived in sumptuous luxury here — until the Vatican sent a strict Dominican Sister in 1871 to impose order.

Nestled in the foothills of the southern Peruvian Andes, Arequipa is famous for its pleasant climate, with bright sunshine throughout the year, and white-painted colonial architecture. Peru’s picturesque, tranquil third city boasts many things for visitors to see and do but one must, everyone agrees, is a journey inside the vast, sprawling Santa Catalina convent. Spread out over 20,000 square meters, its maze of cobbled patios, narrow stairways and darkened rooms is sometimes referred to as a city within a city. The convent is also the scene of a fascinating tale of ecclesiastical power struggles and, legend has it, earthly excesses.


The convent — known in Spanish as the Monasterio de Sant Catalina — was ordered built in 1579 on the orders of the Spanish Viceroy, acceding to a request from the municipal governors of Arequipa. A particularly elegant Andean rendering of the Arab-influenced Spanish Mudejar style, it eventually became home to the daughters of many of the city’s richest and most powerful families, with Spanish Catholic custom dictating that the second born scion become either a monk or a nun; failing to follow this custom could undermine a family’s social status and even call into question its Christian devotion.


Yet the notion that poverty, or at least asceticism, might be some kind of spiritual virtue appears to have been alien to the nuns of Santa Catalina. The families of the wealthiest had to pay the Church a dowry of up to 2,400 silver coins, calculated to be equivalent to $150,000 in today’s money. And once accepted into the convent, many of the nuns lived in fabulous luxury, with up to four servants, or slaves, waiting hand and foot on each one. There are also tales of various kinds of other earthly excesses, including of nuns falling pregnant.

All that came to an end in 1871, when Pope Pius IX, concerned at Santa Catalina’s not-so-holy reputation, sent Josefa Cadena, a strict Dominican nun, to impose order on the convent. She swiftly cracked down on the lavish possessions and gave all the servants and slaves a choice of either leaving Santa Catalina or themselves becoming nuns. Today, some 20 nuns still live a frugal lifestyle in one small, private corner of the convent; the rest of this ecclesiastical citadel is now open to visitors exploring its fascinating history and architecture.


To visit the Santa Catalina convent as part of your unique, individually tailored itinerary, contact the Peru Empire Company at travel@pec.pe or on +51-1-700-5100 or, if you are in the US, 347-713-7030/34.

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