I had been looking forward to visiting the Convent of Santa Catalina, driven by an almost inner "morbid" desire to getting into the atmosphere which had surrounded the lives of many, who willingly (or not) had chosen to live in reclusion.
According to written information it was in the year 1571 that some important members of Arequipa Society and Municipality asked the representative of the crown for his authorisation to establish a Convent for nuns.
The private Monastery for nuns of the Order of Saint Kathleen of Sienna was erected shortly following a huge donation by Maria de Guzman, a wealthy widow with no children, who decided to enter the convent , having later taken her vows and become a nun and recognised still nowadays as the founder of the Monastery.
Totally built of sillar in the architectural style of the churches and houses of the city the Monastery complex covers an area of more than 20.000 m2 and has two cloisters.
The arches around the interior patios in each of the cloisters are decorated with beautiful frescoes depicting various religious themes in contrast with some of the Franciscan sobriety of the cells of some nuns.
The 1738 Cloister of the Orange trees 'name derives from the presence of orange trees in its central patio, around which three crosses were planted, which is where the nuns traditionally staged the Passion of Christ every Good Friday.
The 1715-1721 Main Cloister, the largest of the the two was destined for the preparation, teaching and catectising of the nuns, with five extremely private confessionals on the left.
The Patio of Silence is where nuns used to gather to pray the rosary and read the Bible in complete silence ...
... and the Zacodober Square, whose name comes from the word "zoco" meaning interchange in Arabic, where the nuns used to gather very early on Sunday morning to interchange the items they had elaborated during the week.
The Convent is said to have received creole (daughters of Spaniards born in Peru) and mestizo women, as well as daughters of high rank "curacas" (indigenous people), though women of low economic standing are also said to have been admitted.
The social differences existing in the Arequipa colonial society were naturally observed inside the Convent and this particular fact was clearly noticed in many of the individual cells we visited, once many of the "incoming" women were allowed to bring with them not only servants but also assets.
Several streets cross the Monastery with Cordoba street being considered one of the nicest with its walls and flower pots of red geraniums hanging from the windows, though I personally felt the Seville corner and street to be rather vibrant in their colour.
We had access to some of the communitarian areas, amongst which were the kitchens, chapels ...
... and the laundry, which comprised 20 half-jars like earthen containers used in the past to stock grain, corn or even wine, adapted as washbasins.
We then visited the collection of colonial paintings and sculptures pertaining to the Convent, many of which clearly belong to the eighteenth century Cusco painting School.
That was one of the most interesting visits up till then, I must say, not only because of the valuable insight it provided but also because it vaguely transported me back into my own childhood experience at a Convent, which despite not being so "restrictive" also emphasised the importance of silence, virtues, prayer, interchange and communitarian work, which a lot of people have not been exposed to, particularly at such young ages.
(To be continued)