Books, Bones and a Basilica: El Convento de San Francisco

The basilica was only the starting point of our tour—the best was yet to come with our trip to the adjacent monastery and the catacombs lying many meters beneath the Franciscan sanctuary.

By Gabriella Borter
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e turned right at the end of Jirón Lampa to find the two choclo-yellow parapets of the Basilica de San Francisco de Lima towering over the northernmost area of Lima’s historic district. Here was Spanish baroque architecture at its finest—the worship place of Lima’s Franciscan monks. Forty-eight still live on the grounds today (as we later learned on our tour), while up to three hundred resided in the monastery when it was first built in the 16th-century.

Anna, George, Camila and I walked around the basilica with our eyes to the sky, marveling at the vaulted ceilings and dazzling altars. The ceilings were carved in a red and white geometric pattern modeled after the Moorish style that inspired the Spanish architects who designed the church.

But the basilica was only the starting point of our tour—the best was yet to come with our trip to the adjacent monastery and the catacombs lying many meters beneath the Franciscan sanctuary.

Our tour guide, Ruth, led us into the cloisters of the monastery, first taking us to the convent’s world-famous library. We stood in a roped-off section of a long wood-paneled room. Columns of bookshelves lined the walls and were filled to the ceiling with the convent’s 25,000 antique texts. The room was dusty and still, as if no one had ventured beyond the rope that blocked us to peruse the collection in 500 years.

Of course, this was not the case, as Ruth told us that the monastic order has worked hard to keep the texts in excellent condition over the years. Ruth explained that Lima’s smothering humidity has only increased this challenge of preserving the library books in the monastery, not to mention the murals and paintings.

My favorite of the numerous paintings in the monastery, most of which were done by Peruvian artists in the style of Peter Paul Rubens, was Diego de la Puente’s rendition of “The Last Supper” on the far wall of the monks’ formal dining room. In the painting, Jesus and his apostles are seated around an ovular table and are sharing a meal of guinea pig or cuy as opposed to the traditional fish. Since cuy is a staple of the Andean diet and probably was not a delicacy enjoyed by the likes of Jesus and his early Christian following, I enjoyed this out-of-context dose of cultura Peruana as a spoof on the classic Da Vinci piece.

The last stop on our tour, and another clear (albeit eerie) highlight, was the Catacombs underneath the basilica. While the rest of the monastery complex has needed significant repair over the centuries after suffering damage from several earthquakes, this mass grave has shown no sign of decay (aside from the remains of 70,000 people, that is).

We wove between enormous structural columns built out of a seashell mortar mixture and dodged grave pits as we listened to Ruth explain the organization of the crypt. The bones in each pit all belonged to members of the same family, and the archeologists had lined them up diagonally in an array that was both visually pleasing and gruesome. These were the remains of people affiliated with the monastery, as well as those of ordinary city citizens who were buried in the catacombs before a burial site was created outside the city center in 1808.

Ruth said that the grave pits were ten to fifteen meters deep, so we were seeing just the surface of 3-story stacks of skulls and femurs. As we peered into the gaping grave pits, she also told us that the ground under our feet consisted of other, unexcavated grave pits.

Archeologists only began excavating the Franciscan catacombs in 1947, so perhaps they will find another 70,000 remains under the beautiful monastery in their next century of digging. Then again, maybe it would be better to leave those graves untouched—I’m sure other visitors would agree with my fellow Globalist reporters and I that we’ve already seen enough bones in those Catacombs to last us a lifetime.

Monastery 2

Monastery 3

Monastery 4

Gabriella Borter is a junior English Major in Morse College. Contact her at