Some sightseeing places are famous not for their original purpose, but for an added-on bit of architecture or discovered hideaway. Think of Southwark Cathedral in London, which has a Roman road underneath it that people find much more interesting, for example. The Church of San Francisco in Lima is another such place. The church itself is nice enough–a yellow colonial structure that warms in the light of the setting sun–but here, as with inspirational posters the world over, it’s what underneath that counts.
The catacombs of the church are the main tourist attraction. In the early days of the city, people were buried under the church as a matter of course; this was like churchyard cemeteries, but under the church instead of next to it. I couldn’t get good information from my guide on whether the bodies were always buried in mass graves, or whether that happened later.
I’m also not sure whether the particular arrangement of the bones happened before or after the rediscovery of the catacombs in 1943. It’s a strange thing to see, though; some of the bones are piled up all higgledy-piggledy, some are grouped by type (tibia, femur, etc.), and some are arranged in geometric patterns. Those are the creepy ones, and you think, someone decided the best resting position for these skeletons is in a design not unlike a psychedelic sunburst, but with bones. A central circle of skulls, surrounded by a circle of leg bones, skulls, arm bones, skulls. Who were these for? I can’t find any information on whether these designs were made specifically for tourists to gawp at; let me know in the comments below if you know more. (No photos allowed in the catacombs, sorry, but check the link earlier in this paragraph.)
Catacombs are a standard part of large churches, of course, and I’ve been in some before, but this is the first network of catacombs I’ve seen filled with bones. I know these people were buried on consecrated ground and at least some of this was what they wanted for their skeletons, but just the imagery of piles of bones was far too close to what I saw in Cambodia for me to not shudder.
After the catacombs, I visited the museum aboveground. Just as in the catacombs, no photos were allowed here.
One of the main features of the museum, which is attached to the monastery, is the massive staircase, topped with a Moorish-style cupola. The staircase leads to the library of the monastery, which is a lovely long room full of light and polished wooden shelves lined with old books and ancient scrolls. I was horrified. All that southern light just streamed in on these delicate papers! It’s an archival nightmare! I comforted myself with lies that these were just replica books, and all the real ones are safely stored in climate-controlled rooms with dim lights.
The cloisters are lined with murals depicting various biblical scenes. One particularly grating American on my tour took a look at the third mural our guide showed us and said, “These guys were really religious, huh?” Yes, the monks who lived and worked in this monastery attached to a church were really religious. Good catch.
The final mural our guide showed us was the famous Last Supper by Diego de la Puente, which shows Jesus and the apostles eating Peruvian foods, including roasted guinea pig. I believe there are similar Last Supper paintings throughout South America, but this is the only one I saw.
I never did go into the church itself, instead visiting its varied museum and fascinating catacombs, but two out of three ain’t bad.