If there is one thing I loathe about travelling, which obviously is next to nothing, it would be the dreaded concept of a guided tour. I have never been one to follow the beaten path nor do I admire the idea of being herded like cattle through rooms of antiques by someone who is reciting a script. Nevertheless, today I swallowed my pride and inhibitions and followed the cargo-pant-tourist-train to the Monasterio de San Francisco. I have to admit the tour did not disappoint as my fellow volunteers and I perused our way through a series of dusty crypts and corridors lined with countless creepy pits of sorted human remains and mounds of skulls echoing with the memory of the past. In other words… I highly recommend this tour.
Entry into the Monastario de San Francisco is a mere five soles but with any student ID one can get a discount at half price. So if you are a student travelling in Peru, always remember this valuable piece of information. It will be your magic pass into a number of interesting places. The monastery itself, one of the oldest in South America, is comprised of three churches; El Milagros, San Francisco and La Soledad and contains the first official Catholic cemetery in Lima. The first feature of the tour was the Moorish style cupola or dome-like structure over the main staircase. Made of Nicaraguan cedar in 1625 it is a breathtaking piece of art that I’m sure will demand your attention for at least ten minutes as it did mine.
As a student of ancient and medieval Latin, naturally I was drawn first and foremost to the grandiose library containing an estimated 25,000 books, most of which are written in the Latin language. Among the gems that I’m sure are hidden in the dusty stacks are the first dictionary published by the Real Spanish Academy, two enormous liturgy books made of vellum (def) in Latin of course and some books of which predate the conquest of the 16th century. This Beauty & the Beast style library with its noiseless chandeliers, winding staircases and tranquil dusty appearance would make anyone curious as to the knowledge tucked away between its cedar shelves.
In the Sala Refectorio, or dining room of the monastery, lies a very interesting 17th century painting of the Last Supper of Jesus and his twelve apostles similar to the one by Marcos Zapata. The painting is reminiscent of Da Vinci’s in its layout and theme yet infiltrated and blended with Peruvian flavour. For example, the main dish of the meal is cuy or guinea pig (a delicacy in Peru) and Peruvian fruit replaces the bread and food of Da Vinci’s rendition.
The final stage of the tour and most noteworthy in my opinion are the catacombs; a series of underground passages and an ossuary of sorts, which housed thousands of human skeletal remains at a time when burial places were scarce and when people opted to be buried close to the altar of a cathedral as a way of being closer to God. The catacombs served as a burial-place until 1808 when the city had opened a cemetery outside Lima and was itself rediscovered in 1943. The catacombs, which have withstood the constant flux of earthquakes over many years are even believed to have served as secret passageways connecting to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition. Do not be shocked by the sorted pits of femurs, pelvic bones and skulls. For upon discovery, archaeologists were given the task to separate the bones by type and as a result there are various pits displaying swirls of human bones, eerily stacked into geometric patterns in an archaeologist-meets-artist kind of way.
At the end of the day the Monasterio de San Francisco is just another cathedral with a lot of gold and a lot of old. However, unlike any other cathedral I’ve shuffled my way through, this one has a disturbing yet creative way of reminding us that the only guarentee in life is death….and taxes;)
Written by Christina Baker, a volunteer with Karikuy and contributer to this blog.