25 March 2012

Cusco's Monastery of Saint Catherine of Siena

In Inca times the site of this monastery was occupied by a compound called the Aqllawasi, which in Quechua means “house of the chosen maidens”. It was inhabited by Aqllas, women of noble families chosen from all over the empire for their beauty and high lineage. They entered the Aqllawasi while young and stayed within its walls for the rest of their lives. They were strictly forbidden to have any contact with men and were obliged to remain virgins until their death. The Aqllas were seen as being wedded to the sun and the other deities venerated in Cusco. Their main occupations were the production of fine textiles for the court of the Inca and the preparation of ceremonial beverages, and these two activities were considered sacred. The first Europeans who arrived in Peru called the Aqllas “nuns”.

A beautiful planter in the Monastery courtyard

Saint Catherine of Siena

The Monastery of Saint Catherine was founded in 1601 in the city of Arequipa but, in February 1605, the first 25 professional nuns moved to Cusco after a series of destructive natural disasters occurred in Arequipa. After changing locations several times within the town, the monastery was established on the site of the ancient Aqllawasi. It is likely that its former function was taken into account when the site was chosen. In 1650 the new monastery, as well as many other recent buildings in Cusco, was destroyed by a devastating earthquake. Reconstruction work began the following year, with the foundation of the new church, which has been preserved to this day.

Today thirteen professed contemplative nuns live in the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Cusco. They are followers of the first nuns of the Order of Preachers (Dominican Order) of the Monastery of Prulla, founded in 1207 by Saint Dominic of Guzman. The rules of the Order prescribe for them a strictly cloistered life, although this restriction has been softened in recent decades. Their cells are located in the two interior cloisters behind the temple. Since the colonial period the nuns of the Monastery of Saint Catherine have become famous for their sophisticated embroideries of liturgical vestments and saints’ robes, and for their delicious pastry.

The workroom

The novitiate

The part of the monastery open to the public today contains incredibly beautiful frescoes in the chapter house and a valuable collection of colonial paintings (which you are not allowed to photograph), tapestries, furniture, liturgical vestments and other objects of applied arts from the colonial and republic periods. As well as the chapter house, the public rooms include a study, the former workroom, the novitiate and the refectory. The entire monastery has a peaceful atmosphere and it was a very beautiful place to visit.

Old stoneware in the refectory

In the foundress's cell
 (Acknowledgement: Much of this text was taken from the monastery’s brochure.)

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