November 11, 2010


Heritage, Art and Architecture

Women in Cloister: Peruvian Macro Convents in the Baroque Period

D. Ramón Serrera Contreras.
University of Seville

When the scholar approaches the seventeenth century in the Indies, he has the impression, at first contact, of finding himself before a conventualized society in which the Church and the ecclesiastics occupy vast sectors of colonial life. Except in very specific spheres, the Church, in fact, is increasingly present in all religious, economic, cultural, social, artistic and welfare manifestations, and, in an apparently less tangible way, also in administration and defense, guarding the territorial frontiers of the Empire. 

In the 17th century, in fact, there are countless reports of foundations made by patrons and benefactors, pious ladies and gentlemen, who decided to bequeath part of their fortune, during their lifetime or after their death, to open new monasteries in which their sons and daughters were to profess, as did the nobles in Spain or the Monarch himself and members of the Royal Family in Madrid (such as the convents of the Descalzas Reales, La Encarnación, Santa Isabel or Las Salesas Reales). In the New World, the great foundations of the two viceregal courts, Lima and Mexico, stood out in absolute numbers; but the phenomenon was equally generalized throughout the Indies, with significant cases such as Puebla, Quito, La Plata, Potosí, Santa Fe de Bogotá, Tunja, Santiago de Chile, Querétaro, Guatemala, Arequipa, etc., and even in cities of second or third order that had three or four male and female monasteries. The code of values of that hierarchical, closed and elitist colonial baroque society oriented towards the convent a wide sector of the youth, especially girls, who for family economic reasons could not reach marriage with a dowry and future husband in accordance with their rank. 

This uncontrolled increase in both the issue of men and women who professed in the different religious orders, as well as the increase in the issue of convents and monasteries, also had an urbanistic expression within the Peruvian city of the Baroque period. And this, not only because of the high issue of conventual enclosures that were distributed within the urban layout of its main cities, but also because of the spectacular and impressive architectural development , of almost urban or pre-urban proportions (macro convents or microcities), that reached some of these foundations, especially female, which came to house within their enclosures a very large contingent of residents who led a communal or dispersed monastic life, depending on the case, of agreement with their own rules and internal norms of life.

The most significant example of this is the convent of Santa Catalina of Arequipa, of Dominican nuns, an authentic mass of ashlar stone that occupies an approximate extension of 20,426 square meters between the current streets of Santa Catalina, Ugarte, Bolivar and Zela. Apart from the church, with a nave and two lateral doors to the street according to the classic prototype of nuns' convents already described, inside are distributed three cloisters, orchards, gardens, squares, washhouses, warehouses and, in what was its primitive "citadel", many streets, alleys and alleys with walls painted with bull's blood color that resemble the narrow bends and angles of the peninsular Jewish quarters. Its urban morphology reminds us of corners of the Albaicín in Granada, the Barrio de Santa Cruz in Seville or the Jewish quarter in Cordoba. These streets, whose names are equally evocative (Seville, Granada, Cordoba, Malaga, Toledo, etc.) are lined with houses and cottages of different sizes, some of which are like small houses with a duplex structure. duplexThe houses range from those with four or five rooms, with their back patio and roof terrace, to those with two small rooms.