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Get thee to a nunnery

August 11, 2010

Arequipa: Occupying a block in the centre of the city, with high walls of unadorned white stone, is the the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. It is one of the most incredible religious buildings I’ve ever seen.

The convent, built in 1580 by a rich widow and still inhabited by a few dozen nuns, is a 20,000 square metre citadel within the city, full of winding passageways, Escher-type stairs and landings, courtyards and cloisters. The nuns, all from the best families, who entered the convent were required to take a vow of silence and lived out their days from as young as 12 years old until death.

Noble families secured their places in Heaven by sending their second-born son or daughter into a monastery. But this was no ordinary convent. The wealthy inhabitants brought with them all manner of furnishings and home comforts, including servants and slaves. They lived in houses of varying sizes and luxury, and held concerts and decadent feasts. Indeed, the partying and revelry that went on within these walls made the place so notorious that by 1871, Pope Pius IX sent a strict Dominican nun to Arequipa to straighten things out.

Sister Josefa Cadena did just that: the slaves were set free, the servants dismissed and the nuns were ordered out of their separate abodes and into a rather grim communal dormitory built for the purpose. Eating was done together, and the silence was better enforced.

This is a strange self-imposed prison of women who spend their precious lives not in Larkin’s ‘days’, but in an invented after-life, talking in their heads to a supernatural being, while around them the vibrant, more alive indigos and ochres sing out loud.

Here is a slideshow of my photos:

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