Santa Catalina was erected in Arequipa, a city founded in 1540 on a site chosen especially for its natural beauty, inviting climate, and an abundance of a unique construction material: sillar, a porous stone formed by volcanic lava. Using the sillar, a breathtaking city was erected, boasting its own particular architectural traits, with exquisite sites rendered with aesthetically pleasing proportions, imposing facades, and delicately sculpted decorative details, making Arequipa stand out among South America’s many lovely colonial cities.
The city’s architectural style is primarily colonial, although of a “mestizo” nature. Unlike other constructions from the viceregal period in this part of Latin America, in Arequipa—and especially at Santa Catalina—we may observe the fusion of Spanish and native elements, resulting in an eminently local creation.
The frequent earthquakes that have struck Arequipa since 1582 destroyed the convent’s original buildings, along with the properties owned by the families of the Catherinian nuns, which had been subject to taxes that guaranteed the convent’s economic survival. This led to the creation of the tenement block found in the Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena in Arequipa. The nuns’ families decided to build private cells for them, since the shared dormitory had been damaged, or was too small for the number of resident nuns, which was growing by the day.
For nearly two centuries since the viceregal period, the cloisters and cells of the Convent of Santa Catalina have undergone modifications, additions, and new constructions, turning the building into a veritable “pattern book” of Arequipa’s colonial architecture.