Magical Architecture: Santa Catalina (Arequipa)

A Warren of Narrow Pedestrian Walkways

Surprisingly, the most magical places I visited in Peru were not the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu or other places, but rather the Spanish churches and convents. After all, the Inca had no writing, so while their ruins showed an incredible knowledge of masonry that could withstand severe earthquakes, there was little that aroused my imagination.

A place that did, however, was the giant convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It occupied something like a whole square mile that was walled off from the city that surrounded it and had a warren of narrow pedestrian walkways.

It Was, After All, a Convent

I spent an entire day, from morning to late afternoon, wandering around the grounds of Santa Catalina, with its monastic cells, courtyards, kitchens, chapels, and even a strange room where the faces of nuns who had died were painted on canvases and displayed.

At Times, It Was Almost Like Modern Art

As Christianity begins its slow fade in the Western World, I begin to look upon religious monuments of the past as being every bit as interesting as that of ancient civilizations. In Peru, I loved visiting the old churches, convents, and museums of ecclesiastic art. I must have attended a dozen masses, just because they took place while I visited.

The Walls Were All Either Blue or Dark Orange

I took dozens of photos which I could have shown here, because Santa Catalina mesmerized me. If you should happen to go to Peru, you will probably wind up in Cusco and Machu Picchu, but for your health, it is better to go first to a place where you will not be so afflicted by the dread soroche (altitude sickness). Arequipa, at 7,660 feet (2,335 meters) is a good place to prepare yourself.

And not just because of Santa Catalina!

“Too Much Liberty”

Nun’s Cell at Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa, Peru

There is nothing I have ever seen quite like Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa, Peru. It occupies virtually a square mile with numerous chapels, nuns’ cells, narrow winding streets. One could easily spend a whole day here, as I did. It reminds me of one of Wordsworth’s sonnets:

“Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room”

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells;
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is; and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

 

Furness Fells in Lancashire, England

I love what Wordsworth does here, comparing the sonnet’s “scanty plot of ground” with the constricted quarters of a nun, hermit, scholar, or weaver. If I remember, tomorrow I will show some pictures I took at Santa Catalina in Peru, a place that impressed me even more than Machu Picchu.

 

Why Latin America?

There Is a Reason Why I Keep Going Back There

My first vacation on my own—at the age of thirty—was to Yucatán. In the intervening years, more than two-thirds of my international vacations have been to Mexico, Central or South America. Originally, my interest was in Pre-Columbian archeology. I still am, but I’ve added post-Columbian (i.e., Christian) archeology to my interests. The two exist side by side in fascinating ways.

Many Latin-American towns have museums of religious statuary and paintings that used to be in churches that are no longer in service. Lima, Peru, for instance has a fascinating museum in the former Archbishop’s palace adjoining the cathedral.

Sacramental Vessels from Lima’s Archbishop’s Palace

American tourists usually go in for all the pre-Columbian sites, but are totally uninterested in the ruins of Catholicism that are evident all over the place. In places like Buenos Aires; Cuenca, Ecuador; Mérida, Mexico; and Antigua, Guatemala there are old churches that are no longer in use, but there are thousands of items of religious art that are fascinating to me. One of the most incredible is the huge monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru, which is like a walled city in its own right.

The Monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru

In the morning that I visited Santa Catalina, I took the two-hour morning tour. Then I went to lunch and had some rocoto relleno (spicy stuffed Peruvian green pepper) in a restaurant behind the cathedral. Then I went back and spent the whole afternoon actually trying to get lost as I wandered through the narrow streets and saw the chapels, nuns’ cells, gardens, kitchens, laundries, and other services that made up the monastery.

Looking back, I think I’d rather see Santa Catalina again than Machu Picchu. In my mind, they are of equivalent interest, but Santa Catalina is much nicer.

 

The Mysterious Convent

The Gateway to Santa Catalina Convent

The Gateway to Santa Catalina Convent

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of colonial sights worth seeing in Peru. Probably the most fascinating of them all, however, is the Convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It’s almost more of a citadel than a convent, though some nuns still live on the grounds. It is a gigantic place with stairways leading to nowhere—mainly because most of the second floor was destroyed by the many earthquakes that have hit the city.

It is easy to spend all day wandering through the streets of the convent and in and out of the nun’s cells (such as the one illustrated below). More than anything else, it reminds me of the miniature cityscapes of the Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde in Colorado, except the convent seems to go on forever.

Nun’s Quarters

Nun’s Quarters

I started seeing the convent with a tour guide. That served only to whet my appetite. After a long lunch break eating rocoto relleno at a second floor restaurant behind the cathedral, I returned to the convent and spent two more hours on my own.

It was endlessly amazing: passages that led off in every direction, walls painted red for public areas and blue for private (or at least previously private) areas. It was as if the convent were decorated by professional artists, with flowers and old furniture and cooking utensils available everywhere.

Oven and Stairway to Nowhere

Oven and Stairway to Nowhere

As I write these words, I find myself wanting to continue exploring the convent for endless hours, looking to turn that corner where I will find cloistered Dominican nuns (of the same order that taught me at Saint Henry’s School in Cleveland, Ohio) praying for my salvation.