A city within the city, Monasterio de Santa Catalina

In a city full of extraordinary colonial buildings with a rich ecclesiastical history, Arequipa’s Monasterio de Santa Catalina still manages to astound. It is huge, has beautiful buildings, plazas and gardens, but mainly it has a truly bizarre history that inspires both awe and moral indignation. The Monestario was an extremely wealthy institution, shown not only by its size (from the outside it looks like a massive impregnable fortress) but also by the grandeur of its buildings.

Entrance into the first cloister, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Entrance into the first cloister, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

The history of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, with its horrendous and hypocritical class system, was always going to captivate and repulse at the same time. The two hours I spent there could easily have turned to three or four and, despite the steep price of admission, I would happily go back. Also, an apology in advance, it is one of the most photogenic places I’ve been – so lots of photos.

Established in 1579, the Monasterio’s founder was the wealthy Spanish widow, Maria de Guzman. She established a system where the daughters of only the wealthiest Spanish families could enter the Monasterio (paying a very large dowry for the privilege). In return, the ‘nuns’ were permitted every luxury imaginable – the finest furniture, china and silks; parties, with musicians; the very best food and fine wines; and regular, unregulated visitors.

The latter included men. Understandably, the whiff of sexual scandal was never far away from the Monasterio – which to the contemporary eye looks like a religious private members club where money was far more important than faith, and the Paris Hiltons of their day could do whatever they wanted thanks to Daddy’s money.

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Worse than all of this by some considerable distance, the wealthy nuns were allowed by the ecclesiastical authorities to keep slaves – that’s right, slaves – to minister to their needs. Poorer nuns performed the role of servants to the wealthier nuns, who lived lives similar to their wealthy secular counterparts.

Each wealthy nun had their own private quarters, of various sizes, with a bedroom, living room, kitchens and outside space. Each had luxuries such as musical instruments, well upholstered furniture, china and crystal glass.

Entrance to private quarters, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Entrance to private quarters, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Bed in a wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Bed in a wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun's room with piano, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun’s room with piano, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Furniture in a wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Furniture in a wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Toilet. Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Toilet. Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

This deplorable situation continued for three hundred years. Finally, in 1871 the papacy sent a strict Dominican nun to sort the whole sordid mess out. She freed the slaves and liberated the servants, sent the wealthy dowagers back to Spain and reformed the whole rotten institution. Many of the servants and freed slaves remained as nuns, and the Monasterio closed its doors firmly to the public. Its affairs became an enigma for nearly a century.

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

As recent events have revealed, it is a rare occasion when the Holy See moves with speed to end shocking abuses within its ranks; it seems little has changed since 1871.

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Christ statue with shadow, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Christ statue with shadow, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

6 thoughts on “A city within the city, Monasterio de Santa Catalina

  1. We spent nearly an entire day here, and you are right, it is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever encountered. Our guide didn’t give us quite so detailed a history of the scandals so reading this makes me want to read even more about this amazing place.

  2. Pingback: Areqipa’s colonial churches, an exercise in superaltives | notesfromcamelidcountry

  3. No need to apologise for the images – what a place! I think I’d be oohing and ahhing at every turn too.! Yes, the church has blood on its hands at every turn…..

    • It really is an extraordinary place, and you’d never guess it from the austere high walls that surround the Monestario. It continues to amaze me that such conditions could be allowed to exist for so long with the complicity of the authorities.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s