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Santa Catalina Monastery: the colonial jewel of Arequipa

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Santa Catalina Monastery: the colonial jewel of Arequipa

The year 2020 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening to the public of the Santa Catalina Monastery, the greatest architectural, historical and cultural jewel of Arequipa. There were 391 years in which what was inside the thick ashlar walls was only known by the nuns of the Dominican Order who inhabited it and still do so. However, after so much time, the Monastery is not without surprises for locals and strangers. Here we tell you some details.

The Santa Catalina Monastery is a heritage not only of Arequipa, but also of Peru. It was recognized as such in 1944 by the National Institute of Culture (now the Ministry) and is recognized worldwide, through the title of Cultural Heritage of Humanity granted to our city by UNESCO in the year 2000. It extends over a larger area to the 20,000 square meters that includes Santa Catalina, Bolívar, Zela and Ugarte streets.

The Santa Catalina Monastery, beauty and ancient reverence.

When we hear the word "monastery" we generally think of a large, closed and solemn building, to which the outside world has no access, and with few attractions for those who do not flee from the madding crowd.

Except for its size, the Santa Catalina Monastery does not have any of these characteristics.

And it is that the old monastery, one of the most valuable assets of the city of Arequipa, is one of the largest religious complexes in the world, with an area of approximately 20,000 square meters. 

The official name of the monastery, a reminder of its colonial ancestry, is the Monastery of Private Nuns of the Order of Santa Catalina de Siena. Its construction began in the 16th century, and its purpose was to give an option of religious life to the daughters of families in the city. 

The complex, built in white ashlar (from the Chachani volcano) and pink ashlar (from the Misti volcano), among other materials, increased in size over the years, due to the large number of nuns it housed. 

The monastery is structured in the style of the religious cloisters of yesteryear, but with characteristics that reflect the history of the city that houses it. Among the most famous sites are the Portal, the Bell Tower, the Patio del Silencio, the Cloister of the Orange Trees and the central church. 

Among its attractions are its architectural style, a sum of fusions reminiscent of the colony, but affected by the successive reconstructions that the city has undergone; In addition, the various works of art that it contains have a beautiful baroque altar and various paintings from the famous Cusco school.

Architectural Singularities

Santa Catalina brings together the three architectural styles of Arequipa's heritage, such as baroque, neoclassical and neocolonial. Being a small city within our city, it has allowed us to preserve valuable construction and decoration techniques, some of which have unfortunately been lost over time. The restoration work carried out from 2010 to 2012, allowed us to find some of them. 

The architect and plastic artist, Marisol Velasco Gutiérrez, was part of the team that carried out these works focused mainly on the environments that face Ugarte street and that are around the Silencio patio, located in the original layout of this road. Four vault environments were recovered, another was shored up and the mural painting was preserved. 

The works allowed to see how the enormous walls of the historical monuments of the city were raised. It is not a single ashlar wall, but two that were joined by a mortar of lime, sand and pozzolana. The ashlars were arranged two on its square front side and one was placed laterally in the middle. This acted as a nail or brand among the others. 

“Lime is key for buildings like Santa Catalina because it is a resistant material to seismic movements, since it takes about 100 years to dry, thanks to this it will not crack or break like concrete. For the restoration we had to look for a special lime and make tests so that it was 90% pure”, she indicated. She is also a professor at the UCSP School of Architecture and Urbanism. 

Thanks to this work, a door was also found under the cross that can be seen from Ugarte street. This door always existed but was boarded up. The discovery of it has allowed to provide the monastery with a new environment that has been enabled as an art exhibition hall and that its operation is independent from the rest of the enclosure. 

Mural Painting

They were found after removing the stucco during restoration. They date from the 18th century. They found them in the different environments, especially in the doors and windows. The Chapter House, which was where the nuns held their meetings, was the one with the most ornamentation. The motifs of the paintings were religious, as well as colored flowers and plants. They were also made on wooden doors and window sills. 

Another area where the paintings were found was the Coro Bajo. There, in addition to the decorations, the discovery of 10 cartouches stands out, which together form the phrase “Sing to the Lord, new ones (….). This is the choir, praise him with the heart and which by the just judgment of God dies speechless who praises God with negligence”, a phrase attributed to Saint Bonaventure. The gap in the sentence corresponds to the fourth cartouche, which could not be recovered. 

For the architect, from the discovery of the cartouches, many other investigations can be carried out on the type of techniques they used to make them, such as gold leaf used for ornamentation of important enclosures, and whitewashing, which is a technique of painting with lime. , earth, salt, water and the mucilage of the prickly pear, as well as other historical and religious studies. 

"Liming is a very positive technique because it allows the ashlar to 'breathe' and preserve it better. It is that the ashlar has, so to speak, 'life'. The purpose of the paint was to prevent it from throwing up so much dust. Another benefit is that the lime absorbs CO2, that is, it protects the ashlar from contamination”, commented the specialist. 

Another point to highlight about the painting and color in the Santa Catalina Monastery is that it responds to a plan in which the colors (ochre, yellow and blue) and the area where they will be used are detailed. Likewise, there are old photographs that show that in ancient times its tower was painted yellow, so it is to be assumed that its façade was also. It should be remembered that the exposed ashlar only began to be used in the city after the earthquakes of the years 58 and 60. 

Facts

The monastery has survived numerous earthquakes which, in addition to damaging a large part of the structures, also motivated its restoration. Saint Catherine is not just a relic. It is a living museum. The sisters of the Dominican order continue to live there, and it is possible to contact them through the entrance on Bolívar Street. 

As for centuries, they continue to accompany the spiritual life of the city and through the sale of products made by them during tourist tours they gather funds to continue doing works of a social nature. 

*Report published on January 16, 2021 in El Pueblo newspaper. 

How to get?

It is very simple (in fact, the place is so big that it is difficult not to place it). The monastery is located a short distance from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, following Santa Catalina street for about four blocks. 

How to enter?

The monastery is open to the public every day, except on certain religious holidays, such as Good Friday, Christmas and New Year. The price of admission is around thirty or forty soles. 

What should I consider?

As the monastery is still active, it would not be unusual to come across a nun of the Dominican order during the tour.

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If you want to visit Machu Picchu, we recommend you to book your Machu Picchu Ticket in advance, so you will enjoy your Vacation in Machu Picchu without any problem. 

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