The Museum & Catacombs of Lima’s San Francisco Church

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.

San Francisco Church, Lima

San Francisco Church, Lima

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.


I visited the doors on the left, never the main church door

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.

The Bookshelf Challenge

At the beginning of 2012 I realized I had quite a few novels on my bookshelf that I hadn’t ever read. This seemed silly, to own books that just sat there without being enjoyed. So I endeavored to read through as many of them as I could before leaving on my trip in September 2012. I have about 45 unread, and I’m hoping to read 20 or even 25 by Labor Day.

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Kindred — Octavia E. Butler
American Salvage — Bonnie Jo Campbell
The Love Wife — Gish Jen
O Pioneers! — Willa Cather
Father Brown Stories — G.K. Chesterton
A Tramp Abroad — Mark Twain
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou
Dangerous Laughter — Steven Millhauser
Go Tell It on the Mountain — James Baldwin
The Sound and the Fury — William Faulkner
The Glass Castle — Jeannette Walls
All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — Annie Dillard
A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit


Okay, so I read 14 books off that shelf and a few from the library or borrowed from friends. Not my goal, but not bad. I’m packing all my books away this weekend, so that’s the end of the Bookshelf Challenge for 2012. I might revisit it when I move back to the States — whenever and wherever that might be!

Here’s a photo of the shelf post-challenge (the books on their sides are the unread ones).

A Biblio’s Struggle

I am currently fighting with the Chicago Public Library, since I can’t get to several books I have on hold, including a history of Australia that I’m anxious to start on. Which is not to say I’ve been slacking, dearest fellow travelers. I’m reading Art in Australia and listening to The Rough Guide to Australian Aboriginal Music, and Love Serenade just showed up from Netflix. But since the Logan Square branch, which is holding some materials hostage, has apparently changed their operating hours, I haven’t had a chance to get some other things. Never fear, I’m on it. My lovely roommate D. may get a chance to retrieve them tonight, which’d be great.

Updates on my Australian research to come!

P.S. Did you know that Tuesday was Australia Day? January 26 is like a combination of July 4th and Columbus Day — it’s the national celebration of Captain Cook’s arrival in Botany Bay. The Columbus Day angle comes into play as this is, of course, a European-based celebration of the English settlement of an already-occupied land. Some people refer to January 26 as the Aboriginal Day of Mourning, Invasion Day, and even Survival Day.

ETA: Lies! It’s the national celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet, the convicts sent over from England as punishment. Cook showed up many years before. Shoddy research; my apologies.