XXXIII. Monasterio Santa Catalina 14 July

XXXIII – Monasterio Santa Catalina  – 14 July

Finally today I visit the Monasterio Santa Catalina, also referred to as el Convento, since it was a convent for centuries and part of it remains a functioning convent today.  

You cannot miss it if you read a guidebook about Arequipa.  The Lonely Planet, nicknaming it “Monasterio Misteioso, warns that “Even if you’ve already overdosed on colonial edifices of yesteryear, this convent shouldn’t be missed.  . . . one of the more fascinating colonial religious buildings in Peru . . . a disorienting place that allows you to step back in time to a forgotten world . . . A paradise for photographers.” 

Frommer’s says “Arequipa’s stellar and serene Convent of Santa Catalina, . . . is the most important and impressive religious monument in Peru. Santa Catalina is not just another church complex; it is more like a small, labyrinthine village.”  Another guidebook calls it “astounding.”  Famous Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza (quoted by Frommer’s) called Santa Catalina a “magnificent lesson in architecture.”

You cannot miss it if you drive around Arequipa.  In the smallish downtown district, it is the width of  the wide block between Ugarte and Santa Catalina and runs along those two streets, from Ugarte to Zela, each of which has to dead-end and start again to get around it.  Given the predominance of one-way streets in Arequipa, it can make driving around town a hassle.  Inside, it’s like a separate walled city. 

You can’t miss it on this blog, either.  Giving the place its own separate post suggests I agree that it’s pretty damned interesting.   This post contains [A] a bit of background information; [B] a brief illustrated account of the hours I spent there; and [C] a set of . . . well, maybe I’ll figure out what they are as I place them in here.   Or maybe you’ll tell me.

A.  Background

The convent was founded in 1579, less than forty years after the Spanish arrival. Women who joined were cloistered. They built private cells within the convent to lead isolated lives, with the high walls protecting their privacy. Although it was opened to the public in 1970 [somewhat against the will of the convent and the church, if I correctly understand it], about three dozen nuns (aged 20-90) still live somewhere within those thick walls. (They have no contact with visitors, although there’s a small gift shop with stuff the nuns are said to have made.)

The place has a more colorful history than you’d learn from the material they hand you when you pay your 30 soles admission. For much of its history, it was home to the kind of licentiousness and high living we don’t generally associate with convents. Supposedly, it was founded by a rich widow who chose nuns from the wealthiest Spanish families, charging them a substantial dowry. Each nun had servants or slaves, ignored the ideals of chastity and poverty, and lived the high life.  (On the other hand, in 1985 Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo, who lived a life of poverty here until her death in 1686, and is reported to have performed several miracles.)  This continued for nearly three centuries, until Pope Pius IX sent a very strict Dominican nun to put things in order.

In 1970, the city forced it to modernize somewhat, and had most of the place opened to the public.

B. a walk through the Monasterio  [draft – incomplete]

The stone walls are tall and thick and grey, like the walls of a medieval fortress.   As if we might miss the point, almost immediately inside they have painted the word “Silencio” prominently. 

The  – Locutorios

I reject the overtures of guides.  I am a photographer, not a historian.  I want to see how I feel in here, and how it looks to my camera.  I am less interested in the history; and, besides, I will return here with Ragna eventually, and perhaps we’ll engage a guide then.

But I do photograph one of them.  Resting in one of the deep windows, with her wide hat.  How could I resist? 

There’s a splendid gallery in here too, of paintings from the Cusco School.   Pre-Columbian Cusco was full of creative artists, and after the Conquest, indigenous artists’ skills were pressed into the service of the Church.   The result was a vigorous and interesting artistic movement. 

I’m no art scholar.   Looking at painting after painting of saints and local dignitaries, as seen through the eyes of a conquered people, I find myself trying to figure out whether these faces are the faces of people I would like and respect if I met them in life.   (Mostly, I don’t think so.)

But it’s a splendid site for a gallery.   For this gallery.  

I pause a long time contemplating San Jeronimo.
St. Jerome and I go back a ways. When I was a New Mexico motorcycle bum suddenly transplanted to Cambridge, Massachusetts, my daily walk took me past the Busch-Reisinger Museum. A gift from Germany, it looked like a small European church transplanted to New England — and when I entered it, organ music wafted from an invisible organ. (It turned out that folks could picnic on the stone floors of the place one day a week and hear organ concerts, something I never did nearly as often as I meant to.) As I wandered through the Busch-Reisinger, I came face-to-face with St. Jerome, in an old painting. His contemplative expression, apparent scientific openness of mind, and benign appearance, along with the skull and the dog, appealed to me. I spent a lot of time contemplating that painting. Here he was again, in Arequipa.

nun’s quarters


Did funerals have a very different feeling in the convent?  The nuns, who dedicated their lives to the Church, must have believed so deeply in the Christian story, as today’s Islamic suicide-bombers believe vividly in theirs, that they believed the deceased was being whisked away to a finer world.  Did they believe this so deeply that funerals were joyous occasions?  Was their joy undermined by personal grief that they were being deprived of the deceased’s company, at least for a time?  If so, did they feel a nagging guilt over their selfishness? 

nun’s shop[

I glance at the trattoria.  It looks incredibly peaceful and inviting, but I’m too rapt up in my wanderings to pause for a coffee.


narrow “streets” and old-style walls and doors, with snowy Chachani in the background 

German folks — photographers in each other’s way


late afternoon, fountain and view  


I am quite taken with the place.  I try to feel how it would have been to live here.   I can almost see and hear the nuns.  

Oddly, weeks later, the day before I visit the place again, I will work through some of my photos from this day; and, contemplating them, I will write a few sentence that go along with one of them; and then, as if I were in a trance, several more; but, increasingly, the voice moves from my voice to some other and eventually becomes the voice of a nun who lived there, some time ago.   (I am neither religious nor a woman, and have no particular desire to become either.)    

C. reflections?


(1) I shoot this for the geometrics and the colors, then notice that all the plants are in neat pots. This vegetation is not going to take over where it does not belong. Like the nuns, the plants live very constricted lives, bounded by walls and rules. Whether the plants also find the simplicity of their lives inspirational or elevating I can’t say. But they must sense, as the nuns do, how wholly they fit into a planned pattern, each with its own space and role, guided by some form of intelligent design.

(2) Perched comfortably on the wall, between the young nun and the old volcano, does he bring some news from a boy whose foolishness she laughed at, but whom she will never see again?

Does she imagine that he might recall her? Envy him, sometimes, his freedom to explore beyond the walls? Or does she simply enjoy his song and the silly sight of him hopping about on the wall, looking at her as if somehow he knew her, yet never allowing her to approach him?

(3) At first, life here is a contrast between the grime and darkness of our manual labor in the kitchen and the sublime contemplative moments in which we make or listen to music; yet as nearly identical days succeed each other and stretch into years we no longer bother to count, the sublime contemplative experience of the kitchen inspires and elevates us as much as the music, perhaps more. Or perhaps I lie, perhaps that hasn’t happened, but at least we glimpse the possibility, an ideal as appealing and elusive as the birds.

 (4) A plant, and the shadows of plants. Late one afternoon, not knowing why, I pause and stare at them like a child, sensing that they might tell me something I should know, even understand. Then I do understand. Here, in the simplicity of our lives, we see life as it is. Because there is not so much, each life or thing that we see, we see clearly and contemplate honestly, perceiving its pure and elemental nature, whereas outside, distracted by so much noise, so many sights, so many desires, they can but glimpse the shadows of things. And of persons.

(5) Amidst these pillars and arches that have stood so long here and do not change or weaken, how can we not know how small and transient we are in this world? How can we not know that no matter how earnest we are in our efforts and how massive seem our impediments, we progress like the ant we watch crossing the floor, his clarity of purpose and his certainty of the importance of his errand as comical to us as ours to God?

[she even contemplates the sculpture of La Cena Ultima, although i haven’t the least idea whether it has been in the convent for centuries or was inserted here a few years ago to enhance the museum or because someone needed to move it from where it had been.]       

They are sedate and interested. They are perhaps not joyous, but their faces show no fear, no anticipatory grief, no confusion. They are listening to their Master, who speaks wisely and well, as always.

Jesus himself knows, of course. He will explain it to them, perhaps has already begun, but they do not understand. His face wears the same stoic sadness as on the cross. He is already and always and forever being crucified, but his sadness is for us, in our greed and ignorance, our desires and self-absorption, for he knows we will choose to save the useless thief, while consigning Him to the cross, and will repeat that choice endlessly, in matters large and small.

Judas, of course, also knows. His deep sadness is for himself. He may not know that for more years than he can imagine his name will symbolize betrayal and ignominy. He does know that his heart already castigates him in terms viler than the rest of us will come up with over the centuries.

Peter, though a simple man, senses already how mortified he will be when his will fails him, and how frightened by the awesome responsibility he will face as the rock on which our church will rest.

Yes, I understand that these are a sculptor’s work, not the men themselves.  I am not a witless child.    And this sculptor has carefully made use of what we do know of their individual lives, spirits, and physical appearance.   Yet sometimes as I sit for uncounted minutes or hours staring at them, falling into a sort of trance, they speak to me.

Travel Notes:

Other Points:

for a perhaps more comprehensive (and less flaky) “virtual tour” of the place, see:
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