Arequipa, Santa Catalina Monastery

(continuer en français) – Last updated: October 10, 2020

The Santa Catalina Monastery is certainly the most intriguing place in Arequipa, and is visited by virtually all travellers stopping at least a day in Peru’s second largest city. Founded in 1579, it was mainly attended by high society women who retired there with their servants. Up to 450 nuns lived mainly in small houses grouped together in streets.

From the outside the monastery has a long, high wall surrounding an entire block of the old town on an area of two hectares.

Away from the city’s traffic, several cloisters, painting galleries and numerous cells can be visited quietly.

Immediately past the ticket office, a squad of smiling young women dressed in stylish orange and black suits try to impose their services as guides, making intimidated visitors think their presence is compulsory. As always in these circumstances, their calibrated and automatic speeches along the tour provide information, but their eagerness to arrive at the moment of tipping and then attempt to hustle a new visitor may not be appropriate for quiet photography.

There is still the possibility of going around twice, but the spontaneous inspiration of the first moment may be blunted.

The Novitiate

The first courtyard opens onto an arch bearing the word silence in large letters, it leads to the novitiate where the young convent aspirants had to spend four long years in silence and meditation before taking their final vows. A long probatory period to test the solidity of their faith and their ability to endure the isolation of nun’s life.

A narrow door opens onto a small cloister with white stone arcades and no decoration, all around it several cells, one of which is quite spacious and features a mannequin portraying a novice praying in a corner of her room. From there there seems to be no communication to other parts of the convent, one lives there in a closed vase.

Colourful architecture

Entering courtyards and corridors, the bright colours painted on the walls seduce the eye and saturate the space. Was it a matter of brightening up the secluded life of the nuns or is it a modern arrangement to charm visitors, the answer remains uncertain but the effect is still striking and photogenic.

The monastery is crossed by several alleys that could be compared to streets. They are named after the main Spanish cities such as Malaga, Cordoba, Toledo, Seville, Burgos or Granada. On either side of the alleys, beautiful old doorways give access to the individual cells, sometimes preceded by a small patio.

The cells

The individual cells were occupied by nuns from wealthy families. They paid a large dowry when they arrived at the monastery, not only did they come with some of their furniture, but also one or more maidservants accompanied them in religious life and continued to serve them in domestic tasks. Some cells are still furnished to reflect this way of life and picture the social life inside the monastery, with the sisters receiving each other to chat or even sing and play music.

The beds are more in keeping with the simplicity of religious life, they are placed in alcoves that can be isolated by curtains and, above all, under a protective arch in the event of an earthquake.

The maids had an adjoining bedroom and separate kitchens located in the inner courtyards of what looked like small flats.

Often a flight of stairs led to the roof terrace where part of the domestic life was carried on, or even served as a place to breathe in from the confined life of the monastery.

Everyday life

Several aspects of daily life can be guessed through the layout of the premises reflecting the practices of the old days. Like this collective laundry organised around a series of basins fed by a gutter of water. The bath too, allowing baths that wash the body and purify the mind. Or the confessionals, arranged so that the priests do not have to enter the monastery walls, but can officiate from the church, whose common wall is suitably pierced.

After entering the monastery, the nuns no longer had any contact with the outside world; they spent the rest of their lives within the high walls separating them from the rest of the city. The best they could do was to communicate with their relatives in parlours kept in darkness and equipped with a double row of screens and a revolving shelf for exchanging a few small objects. Larger deliveries, such as for the monastery’s food, were organised in a courtyard isolated from the other parts of the religious compound.

Several small gardens brighten up courtyards and nooks and crannies. Here again, it is difficult to distinguish between authentic recreation and modern design intended to please. However, the days must have been long, and a few gardening tasks could probably have crept into them, even if it meant finding a symbolic dimension to them.

Community life

The life of the monastery was also organised through collective places such as the refectory or the choir, it allowed the nuns to attend religious services while remaining separate from the rest of the nave of the church.

A pinacotheca has been set up in the long vaulted rooms that were once used as dormitories for nuns without a fortune and without their own individual cells. They are essentially works of art of a religious nature.

Over the centuries, the religious authorities have several times raised concerns about the deviations from the peculiar way of life in the Monastery of Santa Catalina. Several reforms were introduced to bring them closer to religious life. Today the monastery continues its activity in a part of the compound away from the visitor’s perimeter. Since 1985 and the visit of Pope John Paul II, the nuns have been able to communicate with the outside world and to leave the enclosure when necessary.

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    • I understand, it’s a visit that allows to immerse concretely in such a different way of life. And the buildings are presented in a pleasant way, giving the feeling that everything has remained as it was. Thanks for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have some doubts about the authenticity of the colour intensity, we tend to present the past in a somewhat idealised way sometimes. But otherwise it gives a very photogenic set and it’s a pleasure to look for the best angles.


  1. Great post and beautiful photos. I was struck by the incongruous nature of the very vivid colours and the austere look of the cells and living arrangements you described. Interesting question you pose about whether the colours are for the benefit of the nuns or to charm visitors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In South America, I have often come across the tradition of oxblood-based red paint, but this does not give such a brilliant hue, hence my suspicion that it is a bit accentuated. But the main thing, as you say, is the living conditions that are presented to us for our understanding and reflection. Thanks for reading and commenting.


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