Archive for April, 2012

Arequipa, Peru – The convent Santa Catalina: A true story in parts

Dienstag, April 3rd, 2012

After they strode through the archway, they had to zip their lips and spend their life in formal silence. The novices of the convent Santa Catalina spent four years before they took their vows or returned to their families, which undoubtedly would have brought disgrace on their families. During colonial times it was customary among upper-class families that the second born son or daughter entered ecclesiastical service. The Santa Catalina convent was founded 1580 by a rich widow who carefully choose her nuns. The came only from the best Spanish patrician families and had to pay a considerable dowry and yearly alimony.

Here the second part of the story begins: Normally this would have meant at least for the daughters a life in a convent’s chaste poverty. Not so in Santa Catalina. After taking their vows the poverty and silence rules weren’t applied that strict any more. Visitors were allowed, although separated by a grille. But behind the convent’s walls 150 privileged women lived it up. Each one of them had one to four mostly black servants or slaves, they lived in relatively magnificent rooms, equipped with kitchen and finest porcelain, according to the wealth of the nun. They invited musicians, made parties and lived their usual rich life.

Part three seems inevitable: After three centuries of hedonistic excesses pope Pius IX sent sister Josefa, a strict Dominican nun, to straighten things out. Like a tornado she swept through the convent in 1871, sent the party nuns home, and freed servants and slaves. Some of them stayed as nuns. The fourth episode of the Catalina saga on the other hand stays a secret of the Catholic Church. For a hundred years not a word leaked to the public until the convent was opened to the public in 1970 – not least because of the mayor’s pleading – and the fifth and temporary last phase began.

The 20.000 sq m big construction is a city in the city, a fortress with streets and squares, surrounded by an imposing wall. After the violent earthquakes of 1958 and 1960 the buildings weren’t completely restored, the rebuilding of the second stories was relinquished. Many of the partially comfortable cells are open for public viewing, as well as the kitchen and the bakery, the nuns’ bathtub, the laundry place, the lower choir where nuns could joint the mass unseen, the art gallery with numerous paintings, and the cloister. Today’s remaining nuns live in a small remote more modern part of the convent. Like ghosts they sometimes dart through the walks. They still bake sweets to sell and salacious sweet fatty tarts that are offered in the café belonging to the establishment. Joerg manages two pieces, I struggle with one.

The convent Santa Catalina is the attraction of Arequipa, although with 35 PEN admission (13 $) not very reasonable. To go without a visit would be a pity since the mood is mythic, the memory of the daring nuns vivid, and there are endless images for photographers to be taken. A guide (in different languages) is 20 PEN per group, the tour takes an hour. It skips many cells that can be visited later on individually. We prefer to go alone. At the ticket booth we received an exact map where each cell is marked that can be visited, and getting lost is nearly impossible. Plan two to three hours for your visit. The convent is opened Tuesdays and Thursdays until 8 p.m. and atmospherically illuminated by lanterns then.

Arequipa, Peru – The Holy Week starts

Sonntag, April 1st, 2012

The young woman’s voice sounds clear and high, she sings heart-rendingly. Unfortunately we can’t say that of the following bishop’s sermon. He recites his psalms monotonously, listlessly and quietly. As the first believers start to doze we leave the cathedral. We accidentally burst into the mass, lured by the angel’s voice and the boredom of the endless delay of the procession. It was said to start at 4 p.m., at 5 nothing goes on, and at last at 5:30, as the light dwindles, first activities show. Then we sit drinking beer on one of the restaurant’s balconies around the plaza with view from the first row long since.

The Semana Santa, the Holy Week, is in the entire Latin America the most important feast of the whole year. Depending on the region people make holiday, celebrate, drink abundantly, or they go to church according to the regulations and walk in processions. The Easter festivities in Arequipa are regarded as especially splendid. The parades already start the weekend before Easter. The bishop tortures his flocks a bit longer, and then the soldier corps may enter the cathedral. The 28 soldiers come out with wavering steps, a larger-than-life statue of Jesus on a wooden tableau on their shoulders that looks very heavy. Then an even larger group of believers carry the Holy Virgin of Chapi, the city’s patron saint. Music from a loudspeaker or a moaning singer provide the dramatic background.

Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city with nearly a million inhabitants and offers a beautiful, tightly structured historic centre. The colonial buildings around the central Plaza de Armas with fountain and old stand of palm trees are made from light-grey Sillar, a volcanic rock that brought Arequipa the byname “White City”. One side of the plaza is occupied by the large cathedral, the other three are covered by the arcades where the municipality, shops and restaurants are located.

The city is towered over by some mighty snow-covered volcanoes: the perfectly cone-shaped El Misti, Arequipa’s 5,822 m high landmark, the higher and more rugged Chachani to the left and the lower Pichu Pichu to the right. The perfect postcard motif is taken from the balcony of the municipality (ask there for permit), where El Misti appears exactly between the cathedral’s two towers.