SAN FRANCISCO CONVENT
From Monday to Saturday, from 7:30 to 12:30 and from 2:30 to 5:30. Sundays: from 7h00 to 12h00
+593 2 2281124 / 2282545
Cuenca 477 and Sucre
Sitio web conventodesanfrancisco.com
Anyone visiting Quito must at least take a peek into the San Francisco complex, with its stunning museum and imposing church, one of Latin America’s most important temples.
Over 8 acres (40,000 square meters) of temples (one main church and two smaller churches), cloisters, courtyards, chapels, chambers; excluding gardens, its ossuary, and secret catacombs, the San Francisco religious labyrinth joins the city’s past to the life and soul of those who know, pray, and cherish it every day.
The Franciscan Square has no benches; no flowers, nor sculptures, adorn it. It has been covered in its now emblematic cobblestones since 1940. For the four centuries before the stones were placed, it was essentially a barren pitch ideal for activities that brought in the crowds: plays, markets, bullfights, processions, the mass catechism of the natives and farming workshops to incorporate European crops like wheat into the agricultural framework of society… Its extension was thus intended to be large. Colonial paintings also depict its original large stone fountain, from where native ‘carriers’ would collect water in huge ceramic pondos to distribute across the neighborhoods. Today, the fountain is smaller, and the sloping expanse seems eerily featureless as one walks up to the monumental atrium.
To avoid who-knows-what Medieval chastisements that awaited him, humble stonemason Francisco de Cantuña offered his soul to the Devil. He called upon Lucifer to fulfill the most important assignment of his life: placing the stones of the church’s atrium. When people tell this legend, sometimes they highlight Cantuña’s wit, while others simply minimize it as sheer luck. Cantuña saves himself from the tortures of Hell (and the authorities), when the Devil finishes the work for him without realizing that a single stone was not placed, which invalidates the pact and sets him free. Legends aside, San Francisco’s atrium is one of the most fascinating places to stand in Quito, with its fantastic double half-moon circular staircase (a Bernini design that was actually not included in the Vatican).
The church of San Francisco is in fact dedicated to San Andrés, and not Saint Francis, (but tell that to the Quiteños who worship here…). Perfectly eclectic, it manages to encompass Renaissance-imbued altarpieces, Romanesque-style stone columns, a Mudejar, or Moorish-influenced ceiling, and Baroque designs covered in gold-leaf, not to mention a series of side chapels, some enigmatic and sober, others blindingly gaudy (notice the pulpit with Catholicism’s three enemies –Luther, Calvin and Arius – eternally carrying the weight of the Church on their shoulders!).
It isn’t only the height of the columns, or the striking images (all admirable, no doubt). It is the masses that, to this very day, glorify this church: families praying viscerally, the faithful kneeling before the miraculous image of the Winged Virgin, centerpiece of the main altar – and one of the few sculptures signed by the talented Bernardo de Legarda – the image chosen to honor the city as its geographical cherry on the Quito cake: Panecillo Hill.
Purple Rain on Holy Week
During Holy Week in March/April, you can’t leave Quito without witnessing the Good Friday Jesus del Gran Poder procession that takes over the city. A human sea of men dressed in purple gowns walk the old town streets beside bare-chested penitents who carry gigantic wooden crosses, on a day that almost always is struck by rain.