As a casual observer, it seems the one thing the Spanish loved almost as much as extracting all the gold and silver from the former Inca Empire, was building churches with the proceeds. While these temples were undoubtably constructed on the back of immense human suffering, they did know how to build a church that sends you seeking for superlatives.
Like Cusco, Arequipa is awash with colonial-era churches. Thanks to successive earthquakes the Cathedral in Arequipa is relatively modern and understated – unlike Cusco, where the gaudiness of the cathedral left me feeling oppressed and gasping for air. Arequipa’s most extravagant ecclesiastical buildings are smaller churches, monasteries and convents – and that is before you even set foot in the truly extraordinary Monasterio de Santa Catalina.
The artistry, sweat and dedication which went into the creation of these buildings is humbling, even when set alongside the atrocities of religious colonialism (for more on that, a good read is Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming, which includes a fascinating section on the soul-searching of the Spanish Crown and clerics about the morality of the conquest).
The churches seem to be split into two types, those with ornate exteriors and those without, which may be something of an over-simplification. A beautiful example of the former is the Jesuit church, the Iglesia de La Compania, with its exquisite entrance.
Less ornate on the exterior but with a rich inner life is the Iglesia de San Francisco, where a 5 soles entrance fee will get you a personal guided tour of the cloisters and quadrangles. If you’re lucky you may get to meet one of the remaining five monks still living in a private part of the complex. At a sprightly 89 years of age, I was fortunate to meet the eldest remaining monk who gave me a nod and a ‘hola’.
He seemed cheerful enough, but I couldn’t help thinking it must be a terribly lonely life in that huge complex.
The serene courtyard in the first cloister was adorned with some peculiar sculptures…some obvious in meaning, but whats with the foot in the mouth of the jaguar? My guide wouldn’t be drawn on the subject.
Most churches in Arequipa have pretty irregular opening hours, which means you have to get lucky as you walk around the city to see more than just exteriors. After walking past the lovely facade of the Iglesia de San Augustin on several occasions we were on our way back to the hotel one afternoon and amazingly the front door was open. Never one to look a gift horse, etc.
Finally, around the corner from where we were staying was the sturdy looking Iglesia de La Merced, which had been steadfastly locked for the duration of our stay. It came through early one morning by being open. Admittedly, it seemed like it had been opened to allow lay members to be trained, but they seemed happy to see us. I particularly liked the statue of nun holding a Spanish galleon.