I have seen many many Roman Catholic churches in my travels and I still find them both fascinating and baffling. For me, they conjure up a mix of emotions – admiration for the skillful art and carvings, appreciation for the simplicity and humbleness evoked by the smaller, simpler churches, and then utter disgust for the sheer richness displayed and the xenophobia symbolized. The Basilica Cathedral of Lima was no different for me.
This cathedral was originally built by the Spanish in the 16th century. It was built on top of a pre-Hispanic temple, to emphasize the ‘triumph of Christianity’. Due to a powerful earthquake in 1746, the building that we see today was built in the late 18th century. Today, the cathedral also houses the Museum of Religious Art.
What to See at Lima’s Cathedral:
Altar and Choir: Gold-plated main altar contrasts with the choir stalls, carved from a beautiful dark wood. Many biblical figures are represented here.
Carvings: The beautiful dark wood carries throughout the cathedral and museum and there are many carvings for which to look out. One that amused me was of a saint holding a demon by a chain around its neck.
Chapels: There are sixteen of them here, all richly coloured, plated, and carved.
Clothes: There are some fine examples of the vestments the priests would have worn. Gold thread galore.
Paintings: While there are many paintings here, two interested me the most. The first was a set depicting religious scenes, but oddly enough, each was marked with a Zodiac sign! The second that intrigued me was the pictorial listing of Peru’s leaders – Incas and then all of a sudden, Spanish. It was someone’s way to justify Spanish rule as the natural way of things.
Francisco Pizarro (so-called conquistador of the Inca Empire and founder of Lima): If you can refrain from kicking this guy’s coffin, go visit it. His remains were found in 1977 in a small lead box in a wall of the cathedral’s crypt. The cathedral gave him a chapel for himself near the main entrance of the church that is very richly decorated with mosaics and wood. What may put a smile on your face, though, is hearing that Pizarro was assassinated by his fellow Spaniards in 1541.
Statues: Like any other Roman Catholic church, Lima’s cathedral is in no short supply of statues. Interestingly enough, unlike many other RC churches, while most of the statues are still of white men, you can still find a few black or Andean statues as well.
Symbols: It’s a Roman Catholic cathedral – of course there will be symbols galore here. Two interesting ones are: the rose that one of the statues of Mary is holding (apparently that rose is only given to select churches by the Pope himself) and the crucifix depicting Jesus with his feet nailed to the cross separately (the norm is one foot on top the other).
The Dead: Under the cathedral is a crypt that you can visit. Many bodies have been discovered here and you can still see some of them. There is also a section of skulls and an area of tiny coffins that would have held babies. There is also an unmarked wall where workers would have originally found Pizarro in his lead lined box.
Location: Lima City Center, Plaza Mayor
Visiting the church is free but to see the museum, it’s not. I suggest taking a guided tour as they take you through the whole cathedral and the museums. You’ll get to hear all the little stories and have important things pointed out to you – it makes the visit here much more interesting.
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You can now download this article on to your smartphone or tablet with the GPSmyCity app; for a small upgrade fee, you will be able to read it offline as well as get a city map with GPS directions! Pretty neat, eh