Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reliquaries and Catacombs

July 24, 2011 – Reliquaries and Catacombs
The courtyard of the Iglesia de San Francisco is covered in birds. I can’t help myself from singing the song from Mary Poppins, “Feed the Birds.” I love that song. One little boy does just that--though I’m sure his parents paid in soles not tuppence. I want to sit there on the steps and with my hair a mess around my face in the light breeze, sing that song out loud for everyone to hear. But I don’t. I do trade a joyful smile with an American –looking guy who is also having fun watching the little boy and his gang of bird.
If you can’t convert the people, convert the birds.

I almost don’t want to go inside. Churches. They’re so much the same. But I’m enticed by the catacombs underneath the church. I’m fascinated by catacombs.

My younger sis and I went to a Franciscan Monastery in Washington DC last summer and saw the catacombs there. So strange how we treat our dead, how we treat those we call saints. It was a great tour. Only thing is, those catacombs in DC were replicas, this, in Lima, is the real deal.

I walk into to the Iglesia De San Francisco. The first thing I see is a statue of the Purisms Immaculate. I want to take a picture. It’s an amazing sculpture. The Virgin stands in the clouds with one foot on a dragon’s neck. Coming up from the fluffy pillow of clouds is a sword-like shape. The same shape is echoed on the left side of the statue only the tip is broken off. I’m so entranced I don’t see the signs that are posted on the walls every six inches that say, “No photos with or without flash.” Before I can snap one I get yelled at by the guard who is probably thinking, “Stupid, dumb, ignorant, non-Spanish speaking Americans who come in here like they own the place and try to do whatever they want.”

                               (I found a picture of the statue online!! God bless the internets. )
That’s not really me, sir. Sorry. I was just entranced. I try to get him to like me by asking if the shape is a sword. He’s not moved by my charm. But he tells me that the shape is the moon not a sword. I want to know everything about this statue. I want to take a picture of the nun who pauses to touch the foot of the statue.

I’m with Oswaldo and Katrina and we take a tour of the whole place with a Spanish speaking guide.

I keep hanging back to write notes and gaze at things and spend most of the tour catching up with the group. We go past a myriad of paintings by Francisco Zurbarán, whose dark tones remind me of Rembrandt's paintings.
“Look at this image of Jesus,” the guide says. It’s a picture of Jesus during The Pasion. He’s weighed down under the splinters of his cross. His face is tortured, sad. “No matter where you stand you’ll see Christ’s eyes on you.” The guide has us move from left to right, and sure enough Jesus’s eye to eye gaze never falters. “Cristo vive,” he says with a laugh.

We climb some stairs, pausing to gaze upward into the carved Moorish wooden dome ceiling that’s fitted together in a design like an intricate jigsaw puzzle, and then we’re into a room that smells dusty and old and ancient and moldy. It’s the library. Oh books. Oh beautiful, sad, dusty, neglected books. It’s a rectangular room with shelves of glorious books. There are tables in the middle with some texts opened up for referencing or showcasing. One of the giant, hand painted, hand copied bibles is set on a stand for us to gaze at from our spots behind the rope. Spiral staircases lead up to a second story and I want to walk up them and talk to each tome individually. I want to read the many different languages, I want to see the complex mathematical equations, I want to stare at historical notes, I want to see what these books say, I want to know how much smarter they are than me. I don’t want these books to be unread, to be forgotten. How sad would it be to have words and never get to share them?

Katrina asks the guy who looks after the room about the books. We want to know if anyone is allowed to read them. I want to know if any of the monks of the Franciscan Order study from these books. “Yes, sometimes they are used for reference or for copying,” he says. He tells us that restoration and preservation is a tough job and a costly one. They do their best to keep the books from succumbing to the air and time. But these books are rotting their pages out on these shelves, underneath these skylights and chandeliers.

The tile walls in the hallways of the church have whimsical cartoonish characters.
All around are depictions of saints acquiring their sainthood (usually by temporarily surviving death or by not surviving death). An older lady, one of the nuns in our group, raps the tiles with the back of her knuckles. I think it’d be funny if a set of tiles fell from the wall, I mean, for a fictional story of course. I imagine that those same knuckles rapped the heads of misbehaving children and I keep my thoughts to myself so that I don’t get my own head thumped. The next room has walls of ornately carved wooden facades depicting a plethora of saints. One saint is holding his severed head with one hand. Another has a long sword stuck in his side. If anyone ever says, “She was a saint,” you might want to clarify just what they mean. In this place it means violence and pain and blood and most likely decomposition and ending up with one’s bones sorted into bins down in the catacombs.
How weird to record the horrible
Ways we kill one another

In a room that overlooks the chapel where there is a live mass going on, there are strange ghoulish creatures on the bottoms of the seats where the monks would come to sit and read from the giant book that got placed on this great spinning pedestal thing. I was so intrigued by the ghoulish chair faces I kind of forgot to listen to what the guide was saying. It may have had nothing to do with spinning books at all. There’s a group of children singing for the church service. Their amplified and off-key voices drown out the guide’s which also makes it hard for me to really know about this room. The children are singing in Spanish but I recognize the song. I just can’t ever place it exactly. Katrina says it sounds like, “And Bingo was his name O.” I’m not sure that was it, but it’s gone now, thank goodness.

Katrina and I, puzzling out the song, are left behind and we have to run down a hall and up some stairs in order to find our group again.
And then we go down into the catacombs.

Cue the creepy music. Dim the lights. Actually at the entrance to the catacombs there is a light switch. My group has gone on ahead of me (yet again) and I, ghoulishly, have the impulse to flick the switch off and cast the place into darkness. Just for a moment. I resist the devil and he flees. Having done no mischief yet, I go into the tombs. I have to duck my head to get in, but once through that main door there’s no real struggle with space. They (the Franciscans I presume) carved this place out just fine. Also I’m short and that helps.
If there were rats this would feel just like that scene in Indiana Jones where Indiana Jones and the blonde Nazi lady are in the Catacombs. Only there isn’t a Knight Templar at the end. And the whole place doesn’t go up in flames because someone drops a cigarette into the petroleum. Okay, never mind, this is nothing like Indiana Jones except there are a lot of bones.

The bones are in order
Sorted by size
By shape
What a job that would have been

Katrina and I peer into one room. It has a mixture of bones. Some skulls stare eyelessly at us.
“Oh my god,” Katrina says, “Look there’s bread in front of that one.”
Bread Before the Bones
Why is there bread in with the bones?

As an offering to the dead? As an invitation for the Indiana Jones rats to come and live there? The options are just creepy. Why is there bread in with the bones?
I’m liking the word ghoulish today and I’m ghoulishly fascinated by this place. The bins with the sorted bones go down meters deep. There’s something like 20 or 25,000 people’s remains here (though the website I consulted says there are up to 75,000 bodies represented). This is an immense amount of bones.

Our tour is nearly over. As my group goes on ahead I duck into a small side room. When I gaze upwards I can see the Church’s sanctuary, when I gaze down, I see skulls stuck in the walls. Down the circular chute are bones, and bones, and bones and bones.

The bodies lie skinless and still.
Toes pointed, old scraps of clothing like skin just barely cover the leftovers of these humans.
Skulls and crossbones
Distract from all these poor dead.

Reliquaries are weird.

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