The Basilica and Convent of San Francis, also known as the Monastery of San Francis of Assisi, is located in the Historic Center of Lima and is an outstanding example of religious architecture of colonial Peru.
The monumental facade of the magnificent church is Spanish baroque style. A harmonious stucco padding painted yellow covers the walls. The central part of the side towers are adorned with a decorative wooden balustrade.
In tracing the design of the city in 1535 the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro assigned the property off the main square to the building of a cathedral, and two blocks away, in the vicinity of the river, granted to the Franciscan Order of the Twelve Apostles the site to build another church. The construction of the Church of San Francisco, a small and modest chapel, began in 1546. An earthquake in 1655 destroyed it completely. The church was rebuilt between 1657 and 1729 and now constitutes a major religious and historical attraction of the city of Lima.
Detail of the facade of the Church of San Francisco showing the image of the Immaculate Conception supported by cherubs.
A few months before his death, Pope John XXIII appointed the San Francisco Church of Jesus of Lima in the category of minor basilica. The proclamation dated January 11, 1963, solemnly declares: "Among so many beautiful temples that grace the city of Lima, near the vast Pacific Ocean, deservedly stands the church of San Francisco de Jesus, which along with the great monastery produces a great admiration for both the antiquity of its origin and the distinguished of its architecture."
Passageway of the Geraniums connects the Main Cloister with other area of the Monastery.
In 1988, the Monastery of San Francisco was nominated a World Heritage Site, a designation which in 1991 was extended to the entire Historic Center of Lima. Part of the text justifying the designation elegantly describes:
“Inside the church, the projections in white on a red ochre background highlight the lovely simplicity of volumes and let the full symphony of the gilt and colour of the Baroque altarpieces burst forth. Several of the most striking features of the convent building (e.g. the main two-storey cloister, the chapter house and the monks' choir, are universally known and admired. Their architectural quality is enhanced by splendid decoration: tiling wall coverings, marble altarpieces, frescoes and paintings, the decorated ceilings of the cloister, the stalls in the monk' choir and in the chapter house, the woodwork in the sacristy, and others.”
Among the most famous and best known areas of the complex are the Library, the Burial Crypts and the Main Cloister.
The old library of the church contains about 25 000 books, many of them unique or rare editions, incunabula (printed in Europe before 1501) and Franciscan religious chronics from the XV to the XVIII centuries, some works dating from the time of the start of the printing press in Peru, and about 6 000 scrolls generated by Jesuit, Augustine and Benedict priests, among others. The collection includes books on Theology, Philosophy, History, Literature, Music, Canon Law and Ecclesiastical Law. Especially notable in the collection are several Bibles written in Latin, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian.
The library at Saint Francis Monastery in Lima, Peru, has a collection of about 25000 rare items including incunables, scrolls and bibles in several languages.
Particularly impressive are the burial crypts, also known as the catacombs. The crypt under the church served as the cemetery of the emerging city during colonial times. Religious authorities, administrators and benefactors were buried in special places. Elsewhere, at lower levels, were placed the remains of prominent persons among the commoners, while the rest of the rabble went to mass graves in deep pits with rounded brick walls. The burial crypts operated as such until 1810. Through bone classification and skull count it has been possible to estimate the total number of people buried at the crypts in about 25,000.
Currently, parts of the crypts are open to the public. Several vaults contain and display bones classified by type (femurs, tibias, humerus, skulls, etc.), in some cases arranged according to decorative concentric patterns. There are hallways and doors which still have not been opened, but supposedly lead to corridors connecting with other churches and possibly with the Government Palace.
The mass graves in the crypt under the church were used to bury “ordinary people” during the colonial period in the city of Lima.
Along the walls of the main cloister there is a collection of 39 canvases painted in the 1670s depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Several paintings are attributed to the celebrated Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán.
Attached to the church building is the Main Cloister of the Convent, which includes a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by galleries in the form of arches supported by columns. This area contained the cells of the monks who gathered in the Choir to sing Psalms and chants during long religious ceremonies. The walls of the cloister are trimmed with Seville tiles dating from 1620 decorated with themes of Franciscan saints. Along the walls of the main cloister there is a collection of 39 canvases painted in the 1670s depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi.