This will be my last blog post for Karikuy (sob), as tomorrow I am leaving Lima to go to Cusco, where I will trek the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – can’t wait! But before I go, I must tell you all about our trip to the San Francisco Monastery and catacombs, right here in central Lima. The monastery was built in the 1600s, and was the home of monks of the Franciscan Order. These days it is open to the public.
The most immediately noticeable thing about the monastery is the ornateness of the architecture and decoration. The exterior is beautifully carved, and the interior walls and ceilings are covered with intricate paintings, some of which are recent and some of which date back to the 1600s, having been uncovered from under many layers of paint. In one of the first hallways, the ceiling is a huge cedar dome carved with moorish patterns. There are carvings and paintings covering every surface, including in one room a Peruvian version of the Last Supper scene, in which the disciples are dining on Peruvian dishes such as ‘cuy ‘ (guinea pig) and spicy rocoto peppers. In another area of the monastery is a huge wall with an enormous painting of a family tree detailing monks of the order over the centuries (in several of the portraits the monks have arrows or spears in them, showing that they were martyred). There are also numerous images of San Francisco himself.
My favorite room of the monastery has to be the famous library. Our excellent guide likened it to the libraries in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts school, and I can see why. The walls are lined with dark wooden shelves and there are two beautiful spiral staircases leading up to second-level walkways with even more books. The library houses a collection of about 25,000 books, which include incunabula, or printed texts, dating from the 15th century (we could see the dates on the spines of several books near where we were standing, all dating from the 1400s). The books cover a range of subjects including philosophy, theology, history, literature, music, geography, canon law and ecclesiastical law, and are written in many languages from Latin and Spanish to French, Portuguese and English. In the foreground of the picture below you can see the enormous open books in the foreground, which were nearly a meter tall. These are song books for the choir, designed to sit on a special stand and big enough to be read by the entire choir at a distance.
After touring the monastery, our group headed below ground into the catacombs. These crypts contain the remains of over 25,000 burials (although this is an estimation since it has not been completely excavated). The catacombs were used up until the early 19th century, when there use was stopped in an effort to stop the spread of epidemics that were causing problems at the time. The catacombs have several sections: first the bodies were stacked on top of one another in one area and covered with lime to reduce odour and disease. After they had decomposed, the bones were then moved to an ossuary, where they were stacked (ossuaries tended to be used where burial space is scarce). In these catacombs, the bones were arranged in concentric circles, as in the picture below, and some skulls were hung from the walls of the sunken wells which served as ossuaries. There was a remarkable equality to all this: people from all walks of life were buried in the catacombs, rich and poor, from servants to monks, all piled in together. Walking through the dark catacombs with their low ceilings, there were so many bones and skulls everywhere that it was hard to take in that these were all people from centuries ago.
The tour we had was excellent, and I would definitely recommend this visit to the monastery and catacombs. From beautiful artwork to spooky crypts, it was certainly a fascinating trip.
Ania is a volunteer and researcher for the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.