The city of Antigua Guatemala is well known for its rich history and culture. A colonial city with many cultural attractions, but none as famous as the “Arco de Santa Catalina” (Santa Catalina Arch), located at 5 Avenida Norte.
“El Arco” is undoubtedly the most photographed spot in Antigua Guatemala, every local and foreigner visitor to the city has taken a photograph of this emblematic monument, it is so iconic that it has become the symbol of Antigua Guatemala and cover for many books and magazines. The Fifth North-Avenue (5a Avenida Norte) is also called the Street of the Arch (Calle del Arco) and is the scene for many cultural events. The popularity of this street is not recent though, it was already a very commercial and busy street from the times of the Spanish colony; in those days it was called "The Street of the Merchants" since there were more than 50 businesses all along the avenue.
“El Arco” is an architectural monument worthy of admiration, but it was not built for aesthetic purposes. The story begins in 1609, when four nuns of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (Convento de la Inmaculada Concepción de María) were authorized by the government of the Spanish Colony to build a convent on 5th Avenue North, this would be the second convent of the city.
This convent construction took 4 years to complete. The convent had a character of seclusion due to the votes taken by the nuns that belonged to the Order "De La Inmaculada Concepción". The convent was a cloister for nuns who could not go outside or be seen by anyone. Eventually, the number of nuns admitted to the convent grew, the head of the order realized that there was no longer enough space for all of them, so they asked the government for permission to use the building across the street. The government of the Spanish Colony granted them the building in 1693. But due to the vows of the Order, the nuns asked to close the street so that they could be able to walk from building to building without being seen, something that the government rejected. However, they were allowed to build a bridge in the shape of an arch connecting both convents.
This bridge would be a closed corridor for the nuns to use to cross the street and avoid all contact with the outside world. The construction of the bridge ended in 1694.
As a result of the Santa Marta earthquake of July 29, 1773 and a series of subsequent tremors, the structure of the Santa Catalina Arch was damaged. The restoration and repair process was slow and it was not a priority at that time, eventually the restoration was abandoned in 1776 when the government decided to move the capital city to La Ermita Valley (Guatemala City today).
The damages of the Arch were not severe, so in 1843 the government of Guatemala decided to entrust the restoration and conservation of the Arch, as well as of multiple buildings in the city as part of a project of architectural and cultural preservation of Antigua Guatemala. After years of planning, the restoration and maintenance work began in 1853, as well as the construction of the central tower to place the iconic clock of the arch. The clock was brought from France by the brand Lamy Amp Lacroix, but engineered by Baily-Comte. A clock that has to be wound up every three days. The famous clock has required repairs and major maintenance 3 times since it was installed.
The warm yellow color of the walls of the Arch is no coincidence, since it represents the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, a religious tradition from the colonial era. However, it hasn't been yellow since the beginning; during the multiple restoration processes (the last one was in 2017), multiple layers of different colors with up to 21 different shades have been discovered.
The first color was white, like most buildings of the time. Later and in chronological order, the colors were light blue, blue, light green, brown, gray, black, then returned to the white color and then the yellow color we all see today.
The popularity of the Arco de Santa Catalina in Antigua Guatemala inspired the construction of another arch in the capital city of Guatemala, this is the “Arco de Correos y Telégrafos”. Today, the Arch is the inspiration of photographers, painters and even poets for their artworks.