Two blocks north of the Plaza de Armas the vast walls of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina shelter a convent that housed almost two hundred secluded nuns and three hundred servants from the late sixteenth century until 1970, when it opened some of its outer doors to the public. The most important and prestigious religious building in Peru, its enormous complex of rooms, cloisters and tiny plazas takes an hour or two to explore. Some thirty nuns who still live here today, worship in the main chapel only outside of opening hours.

Originally the concept of Gaspar Baez in 1570, though only granted official licence five years later, the convent was funded by the Viceroy Toledo and the wealthy María de Guzmán, who later entered the convent with one of her sisters and donated all her riches to the community. The most striking feature is its predominantly Mudéjar style, adapted by the Spanish from the Moors, but which rarely found its way into their colonial buildings. The quality of the design is emphasized and harmonized by a superb interplay between the white stone and brilliant colours in the ceilings, the strong sunlight and deep-blue sky above the maze of narrow interior streets.

Los locutorios

Once you enter, you file left along the first corridor to a high vaulted room with a ceiling of opaque huamanga stone imported from the Ayacucho Valley. Beside here are los locutorios – little cells where on holy days the nuns could talk, unseen, to visitors.

The Novices Cloister and Orange Tree Cloister

The Novices Cloister, beyond the locutorios, is built in solid sillar-block columns, with antique wall paintings depicting the various qualities to which the devotees were expected to aspire and the Litanies of the Rosary. Off to the right, the Orange Tree Cloister (Claustro Naranjal), painted a beautiful blue with birds and flowers over the vaulted arches, is surrounded by a series of paintings showing the soul evolving from a state of sin to the achievement of God’s grace. In one of the side rooms, dead nuns were mourned, before being interred within the monastic confines.

La lavandería

Calle Cordoba runs from the Orange Tree Cloister past a new convent, where the nuns now live. The road continues as Calle Toledo, a long, very narrow street that’s the oldest part of the monastery and connects the main dwelling areas with la lavandería, or communal washing sector, is brought to life with permanently flowering geraniums. There are several rooms off here worth exploring, including small chapels, prayer rooms and a kitchen. The lavandería itself, perhaps more than any other area, offers a captivating insight into what life must have been like for the closeted nuns; open to the skies and city sounds yet bounded by high walls. Twenty halved earthenware jars stand alongside a water channel, and it also has a swimming pool with sunken steps and a papaya tree in the lovely garden.

Plaza Socodobe and Sor Ana’s rooms

Broad Calle Granada brings you from la lavandería to the Plaza Socodobe, a fountain courtyard to the side of which is la bañera, where the nuns used to bathe. Around the corner, down the next little street, are Sor Ana’s rooms. By the time of her death in 1686, 90-year-old Sor Ana was something of a phenomenon, leaving behind her a trail of prophecies and cures. Her own destiny in Santa Catalina, like that of many of her sisters, was to castigate herself in order to offer up her torments for the salvation of other souls – mostly wealthy Arequipan patrons who paid handsomely for the privilege. Sor Ana was beatified by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.

The refectory and main chapel

The refectory, immediately before the main cloisters, is deceptively plain – its exceptional star-shaped stained-glass windows shedding dapples of sunlight through the empty space. Nearby, confessional windows look into the main chapel, but the best view of its majestic cupola is from the top of the staircase beside the cloisters. A small room underneath these stairs has an intricately painted wall niche with a Sacred Heart centrepiece. The ceiling is also curious, illustrated with three dice, a crown of thorns and some other, less recognizable items. Within the quite grand and lavishly decorated main chapel itself, but not part of the tour these days, are the lower choir room and the tomb of Sor Ana.

The main cloisters

The main cloisters themselves are covered with murals on an intense ochre base with cornices and other architectural elements in white stone; the murals follow the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Although they were originally a communal dormitory, their superb acoustics now make them popular venues for classical concerts and weddings and the space can absorb up to 750 people standing or 350 seated around tables.

Religious art museum

Before exiting the monastery, there’s a rather dark religious art museum full of obscure seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings. The best of these are in the final outer chamber, lined mainly with works from the Cusqueña school. One eye-catching canvas, the first on the left as you enter this room, is of Mary Magdalene. Painted by an anonymous nineteenth-century Arequipan, it’s remarkably modern in its treatment of Mary and the near-Cubist style of its rocky background.

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