Saturday, February 10, 2007


Next to a rotisserie chicken joint, across a busy street from the diamond vision digital billboard, and next to a 5star hotel, I found the Church of San Francisco. Built from 1586 - 1628, it houses the first virgin mary in chile, the Virgen de Socorro (help). Brought by the Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia as protection against indian attack. But perhaps her true role was as protector against the three earthquakes the church has withstood, making it the oldest building in Santiago. A nondescript brick-red facade encloses the high, vaulted ceiling. Once inside, the smog and heavy heat recede into the silence of the chapel. Worshippers kneel, heads in hands, s they must have for centuries. On the walls people have scrawled prayers and pleas for protection and benediction on their families, their work, their houses and studies.

In the adjacent courtyard, I wandered thru the museum without much expectation. Ebtering the former convent, I was pleasingly shocked . In a manner that only colonial catholicism can muster, the halls were filled with gruesome depictions of the franciscan christian histories.

Adherents used to torture themselves in shared suffering with Jesus. The actual instruments of these self-imposed inflictions were presented in glass cases with titles like: ´shoulder whips,´ ´teaded scourge,´ and ´whips for the soles of the feet.´ Deeper into the dark, cool rooms were countless, spectacularly gruesome representations of Christ Crucified. I rounded a corner and upon the graphic scene of Christ on the cross, tortured. Beatific midget angels gaze smiling at their Lord. His body so fully flagellated that burgundy blood drips onto the women washing his feet and saturates his loincloth. But the angelitos still gaze admiringly at his suffering, exhausted face and collect his blood in goblets of gold.

The highlight of this impressively morose celebration of religious penance is definitely the 54 canvasses depicting the life of St. Francis of Assissi. Each about 11 by 7 feet, they once lined the walls of the church itself. They were given inspirational titles like: St. Francis Stoned by the Children of Assissi, These Shall Be Thy Weapons, St. Francis Chastises Disobedience, Temptation of the Flesh, St. Francis and the Leper, St. F receives the Stigmata, and St. Francis in Purgatory. Rosy-cheeked cherubs, usually pictured fluttering blissfully in the nude, here were in full armor wielding tiny swords and shields. A beheaded bishop, the raw stump of his neck staining the white satin bedsheets with dripping crimson as the still-squinting head sits on the floor. And finally, the Death of St. Francis portrays his grey emaciated body attended by a flock of monks. Their shaved heads bowed with a look of guilt, while a symphony of angels plays above. And of course St. F greeted at the pearly gates - his flowing hair, creamy complexion and rosy lips returned to their earthly brilliance once again.


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