This is one of the most eminently explorable monasteries in the world.
It protects one of the largest and most important rare book collections. It boasts several masterworks from the studio of Francisco de Zurbaran. Diego de la Puente’s guinea-pig themed “Last Supper” headlines in the Baroque multimillion dollar dining hall–where the vow-of-poverty Franciscan friars once gathered to eat.
But almost all of its visitors are really there to see the half-millennia-old crypts a dozen feet below.
But they make you visit the monastery and convent first.
Exploration is supervised by one of the monastery’s many educated, enthusiastic, multilingual, and mandatory guides. The first forty-five minutes of the tour is an education in matters of Peruvian art, architecture, and seventeenth century friar culture.
The “Last Supper” depicts a tanned Jesus and his disciples eating local indigenous cuisine. This is because the missionaries wanted Christ to seem relatable to the Peruvian natives. When that didn’t work, the Church instigated an aggressive recruitment campaign–The Inquisition.
In the cloisters, artistic renderings recount Saint Francis of Assis’s ambitious trip to Egypt to propose a peaceful resolution to the Crusades–if the Sultan would only convert! Then there is a valiant but failed attempt to inspire care about Baroque wood-sculpting while misidentifying Saints decorating the Choir.
Upstairs, after passing under a Moorish-style Nicaraguan-cedar cupola, is a collection of more than 25,000 delicate tomes–including the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy. They must not be photographed, touched, or be subject to the wrong type of light, thereby preserving these unobserved treasures for future generations not to photograph, touch, or expose to the wrong type of light. (Actually, professors are allowed to examine the books under strict protocols and supervision. Permission should be requested far in advance.)
Then you come to a chilled and darkened arch.
(Well, you come to it after you double-back downstairs, cross a wondrous and verdant courtyard, and duck below some cloisters.)
Cold cobblestone steps descend deep beneath the monastery to the labyrinthine and claustrophobic catacombs of Saint Francis. According to enthusiastic docents, the craniums, clavicles, femurs, tibias, and tarsals of 70,000 nobles, clergy, and victims of the 1656 great Lima earthquake decorate the walls, fissures, ossuaries, pits, and floors of what was Lima’s first cemetery.
Other sources assert a more humbling number of 25,000 very permanent inhabitants.
Whatever the number, it is a near-endless parade of quicktime-doused skeletal remains positioned in sundry geometric patterns.
Legend claims that somewhere in this dreary bony abyss, is a network of secret passages to the Cathedral located at the Plaza de Armas–which hosted the Tribunal of the Inquisition.
If you tip your guide a dollar he wont notice if you venture in alone.
The Monastery is open daily from 9:30 AM to 5:45 PM and admission is about $2. It is located only two blocks from the Lima Plaza de Armas and Peru’s Presidential Palace. The excellent, enthusiastic, and museum-required guides are friendly and multilingual. Tipping is not required but you know what to do if you want the prohibited, yet obligatory, photograph of the catacombs.
Also, and this is very important, bring your own toilet paper. I choose not to offer any further guidance on why I make special mention of this.
The monastery’s official website can be found here.
For more information about motifs in seventeenth century Baroque woodcarving, visit here.