18 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 13: Of Skulls, Guinea Pigs, and the World's Most Beautiful Library: A Visit to the Convento de San Francisco in Lima

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

A monk enters the Convent of San Francisco
Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: the dust

On the list of fascinating things to see at the Convento de San Francisco, the piles of skulls and bones are actually only fifth on the list.

Admission to the convent is a mere 7 soles (about $2.25 when I was there) and it is, not even kidding, quite possibly worth the trip to Lima by itself. Built in 1774, the convent is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's not hard to see why. 

By "piles of skulls and bones," I mean catacombs. Below-ground, dimly-lit, labyrinthine catacombs with vaulted ceilings and room after room with pit after pit of bones and more bones and still more bones, organized by bone type--femurs in this stone bin, ribs in that one, fibulas in the next--and tastefully arranged in giant careful lines or herringbone patterns or concentric circles. The care and artistry is actually kind of unnerving--it's as though these are displays at Morbid Pottery Barn.  Whose job was it to sort the bones? Who art-directed the arrangements? Who made the final call about which skulls, exactly, to put in the niches, in precisely the sort of way they do in haunted houses, except this is supposed to be solemn and respectful, not campily creepy? 

The mind boggles; the mind wanders. Most days, that would be the most intriguing tale of the day, the likeliest candidate for dinner-table conversation.

Today, it's only number five. 

Number four is the restoration happening on the underside of a staircase. There's a scrim hiding the work, so it's hard to see precisely what's going on, but it appears that there's a short hallway that cuts under the stairs, the ceiling tilted, its plaster painted in some elaborate manner. There are two people sitting on chairs perched atop a scaffolding, so that they can easily reach the ceiling when they sit upright. They're doing touch-up work, their brushwork tight and careful. Because of the scrim, I can't see the workers' faces or even what they're working on--but I can see their outlines, because their shadows are cast onto the scrim by bright spotlights. It's mesmerizing: Portrait of the Artists As Shadow Puppets. No one else in our tour group seems to notice as we walk past, but I'm so entranced that I linger for a good minute before catching up with the group and then whispering to a couple of my friends from the ship that they have to slip away from the group for a second, because there's something I just have to share with someone. (Unfortunately, photos are very strictly forbidden inside the convent, so I don't have any pictures, which kind of breaks my heart. But you can find convent photos taken by rule-breaking tourists on Flickr.)

Number three is the painting that the group is admiring when I track them down after my moment of awe in the company of shadows. The painting takes up nearly an entire end of a long, skinny room. It looks a whole lot like "The Last Supper." It is "The Last Supper." Except that on a big platter in the middle of the table--being admired by Jesus and his disciples--is a delicious meal of roast guinea pig. Cuy, to use the Spanish word, was historically a fairly common food in Peru (and it's still not too hard to find on a menu, although definitely not on your typical tourist-restaurant bill of fare). (Students of art history: here's the full Cuy Supper story.)

Number two is a vast, unbelievably beautiful, jaw droppingly intricate dome over the grand staircase that leads to the upper level, where there's a library and a choir loft open to the church itself. The dome features a cedar lattice of star shapes. I'm not doing it justice. It kills me not to have photos. But suffice it to say, if this dome were in any given building in the USA, tourists would come from miles around just to look up and gape. The intricacy of the pattern and the pure craftsmanship of the execution seem very nearly impossible--as beautiful, to my mind, as anything I saw at the Vatican or in Florence. 

And then there is number one, which is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, simply the most beautiful space I have seen, ever. That's a strong statement, prompting eye-rolls and charges of hyperbole. I absolutely mean it. 

It's a library. The church itself didn't do much for me, spiritually, nor did the works of religious art and iconography throughout the convent. But stepping into this library probably about as close as this agnostic has ever felt to the divine. It literally took my breath away; it literally made me cry.

It's one big room, long and skinny and lit by three very small chandeliers and three very large skylights, which flood the space with an ethereal glow. The light, my God, the light. On either side of the room, directly across from each other, are two perfectly symmetrical spiral staircases that lead up to a small balcony area, which overhangs the shelves that march all the way to the back wall. Brackets that call to mind small sections of spiderwebs join the balcony to the shelves. It's all a study in symmetry, intimacy, and serenity, the details impeccable but not ostentacious. (This photo gives you as sense of it, but really doesn't begin to do it justice.)

The shelves are packed with books, most of them upright and organized, but some stacked in piles or leaning oddly or otherwise arranged a seemingly haphazard manner, as though some monk was recently browsing the stacks and didn't quite put things back correctly. And, actually, that's possible. These books are all very, very old, and in various states of deterioration, but they're not behind glass or protected in any way. They're literally gathering dust here--this is not a museum, not a gallery. It doesn't feel twee or contrived or preserved simply for the sake of tourists--it just is, as it always has been. The dust and the scattered haphazardly-shelved books--all perfectly-lit, the colors warm and saturated, the lines perfectly defined--add to the sense that you've just stepped into this magnificent room not with a tour guide but through a warp in the space-time continuum. You're not sure if it's 1780 or 1870 or 1920; there's not so much as a glowing exit sign to signal that you're in the twenty-first century. 

The natural thing, in these too-perfect moments, is to think of film--it's like something out of Indiana Jones, or maybe Hogwarts. Shakespeare, maybe. Something. This can't be real. You start looking for the flaws; it starts to feel uncanny, even creepy.

Except, sometimes, your brain doesn't even get that far. It's too busy being overwhelmed, too strained by the very literal awesomeness of a place. 


  1. You were time traveling, of course. I am constantly looking for portals when I travel, but they are getting harder to find, though when you do pass through one there are never any crowds.

    1. Well said, DEK. You're right, those portals are getting harder to find. But for that very reason, they stand out even more, and have an ever more powerful impact, when you do find them.

  2. your book looks very interesting. i'm gonna buy a copy and read about it. good work! like the video clip.


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