Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Santa Catalina

View of the Panecillo from Santa Catalina Belltower

I returned to the monastery and church of Santa Catalina de Siena. The nuns are renowned for their delicious cakes, cookies, hot punch and wine as well as creams and ointments and communion crackers. There is a little window at the entrance through which you can make a request and pay for and receive your desired product; the nuns do not leave their community. They live in silence and pray and work all day. They are allowed one hour daily to talk in the courtyard in front of a statue of the Virgin. Once a nun, they never leave the convent unless they have a medical emergency. There are thirty nuns and twenty novices. To become a nun, one first visits for a few days to a week to see how it feels to live in the monastery. If one chooses to become a novice, one is required to stay for five years, during which time one may leave whenever one wishes. After five years, a novice becomes a nun and commits to staying in the convent forever. Currently the youngest nun is 36 and the oldest is 97.

Neoclassical/NeoGothic Interior of Santa Catalina

The entrance of the museum part of the convent is up a tight set of stairs to the left of the window where products are sold. Several customers were waiting on the stairs in front of the window to make their purchases. My guide was a young woman with so many incredible details at her fingertips, I wished I had brought a notebook to record her stories. I learned about the lives of saints and about so many different 'Virgin Mary's. I have yet to ask why there are so many distinct 'Mary's who are revered. There is a Virgin of Merced, and of Quinche and of Quito and of the Apocalpse and more. Each is represented with a particular item in her hand or nearby to help identify her.

My guide had an incredible memory and was able to describe the lives and deaths of each saint (so many horrific deaths), and the different techniques of the Quiteño school painters and sculptors, the latter who used sheep's bladder and saliva to rub on the hands and faces of their sculptures to make them shiny. She was interested in pointing out the 'synchretism' (the melding of cultures) in many of the artworks. She believed that the indigenous artists added native elements in their paintings as an expression of rebellion, as a way to subtly show their 'masters' who they were.

From above we peeked into the hallway where the nuns live in silence and prayer. Dressed in light blue and white and covered all over except for her face and hands, a woman of uncertain age held a large plastic back full of communion crackers. A large sign at the end of the hallway read 'SILENCIO'. Nearby was the courtyard, much of which is planted with vegetables and herbs. The convent was self sufficient for years, growing all their own food. Our guide pointed out the statue of the Virgin in the courtyard where the nuns are allowed to speak to one another for an hour a day.

The church was closed, and is open only on Sunday for masses. We were able to look down below from the choir. The nuns cannot mix with the public, and when a mass is going on, they look on from above behind a screen so they cannot be seen. A small narrow stairway led up to the belltower, where there were wonderful views in each direction.

San Augustin and Basilica

We were offered a taste of communion wine produced by the nuns. It was sweet and not very alcoholic, and it felt a little odd to be drinking the communion wine.

Once outside, the sun was shining fiercely as I walked to La Merced, which was closed again. It seems that every time I want to visit this beautiful church, the big doors are shut. I walked around the corner to find the associated colonial museum, which is supposed to house a great collection of Quiteño art, but it too was closed, this time for renovations without a certain opening date.

La Merced Cupola

I have visited the major churches and convents in the Centro Historico, but there are many more to find (they are hidden) and visit. I have passed several which are closed, and I am unable to find out when they are open, but it may be that I must start earlier in the morning. There was a poster out these past few days announcing a 5 AM procession and mass at the Monastery/church of the 'Concepcion' this morning. Five in the morning is definitely too early, but perhaps I can try to be in the Centro Historico by 9 to see if more doors are open.

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