Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Books and Bones of San Francisco Monastery (Lima, Peru)

Relaxing in the monastery courtyard gardens looking over the San Francisco Monastery, the complex immediately strikes as architecturally as beautiful as most European churches. There is little surprise that it is recorded on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and is one of Lima’s finest travel wonders. The complex has two main areas - the church with its squat towers and superb carved central portal; and a fascinating area where the monks once lived with two very significant highlights.

So elegantly and tastefully lit at night, the church has a peaceful feel, despite the crowds of worshippers and travellers, with its domes and square patterned paintwork. While the main altar is carved from oak, the solid silver altar in one of the chapels highlights the mineral wealth in the area at the time that drove the Spanish to conquer most of South America. The walls around the accompanying monastery are covered with glossy glazed hand-painted tiles in blues, greens and yellows so reminiscent of the Moorish style.

However the real treasures are hidden within the monastery walls (and only available via a guided tour). Art treasures of famous masters and wondrous wood carvings litter the labyrinthine walls alongside locally produced paintings. A Last Supper shows a meal of the local delicacy of guinea pig (cuy) and the angels with wings of tropical parrots.

A magnificent library (sadly, visitors can only peer from the doorway to protect its valuable holdings) is lined with ancient leather-bound dusty tomes and manuscripts stored in old wooden bookcases, a couple dating back to the days of hand-written texts. A number of books document the times of the early Spanish conquest (from the Spanish viewpoint of course). Though too delicate and valuable to touch, it would have been great to be able to flick through the centuries of antique texts and absorbing the history held on the monastery’s shelves.

Built in the late 1600s, but only discovered in 1951, the building’s low-ceilinged and claustrophobic crypt harbours the skulls and bones of over 70,000 people. Peering through the inky blackness of the alleys, a strange surprise awaited. Somewhat ghoulishly, the archaeologists catalogued their findings by sorting the bones into separate bins, the arm and leg bones in one area, pelvises in a second zone and skulls in yet another. To complete their efforts, and with a European flair, the scientists turned their hand to art, building patterns with radiating fans of femurs broken by rings of skulls.

The catacombs and tunnels are said to run for some distance under the city linked to other churches. It was difficult to tell whether this was a nice medieval tale or a practical way to move cross town.

Lima is often little more than a gateway for travellers exploring the Peruvian highlights, whether it be flying over the mysterious Nazca Lines, boating around the wildlife of Ballestas Islands or trekking the Inca Trail, but Lima warrants a little time to explore its treasures, especially the San Francisco Monastery.

Photo Credit: church interior


Donna Hull said...

I started a cruise once in Lima but didn't really have the time to see the city. I'd love to back for a visit to San Francisco Monastery.

Jorie Pacli said...

Amazing how those skulls formed together in that ceiling! It must be a eerie though at night..;) Love this post! Thank you for sharing...:)

Sherry Ott said...

I went there but didn't do the guided tour...looks like I really missed out on a ton of information! Some great pictures too!

Mark H said...

@donna: I wasn't a big fan of Lima but this and the Gold Museum were exceptions.

@jorie: I saw the ossuary during the day but it does give a somehwat uneasy feeling.

@sherry: That is a shame because it was one of the good tours (but I know what you mean by missing it)...

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