Exploring Nicaragua’s Past at Convento de San Francisco
In the heart of Granada’s city center, within the unassuming walls of the Convento de San Francisco adjoining the Iglesia de San Francisco, we discovered a fascinating collection of art and artifacts that date back to centuries past and tell the rich stories of Nicaragua’s colonial and pre-Columbian history.
Built in 1529, the convent was destroyed and rebuilt three times following a few pirate attacks and again after it was ransacked by Nicaragua’s former president, William Walker, an American lawyer, journalist, and adventurer whose deluded goal was to establish and personally control English-speaking colonies in Latin America.
Walking into the convent’s courtyard, we were immediately greeted by a cool breeze – instant relief from Granada’s intense sun and the palpable humidity. The courtyard walls are covered in beautiful murals depicting the story of Nicaragua’s conquest by the Spanish and the dispersion of Christianity to the indigenous peoples.
As we walked deeper within the convent past a room with a model displaying Granada’s modern-day layout, we eventually found ourselves in a large room full of statues dating from 800 to 1200 A.D.
Our guide explained that these statues were created by pre-Columbian peoples living on Zapatera and Ometepe islands in Lake Nicaragua. The human-like bodies of these statues are capped with the heads of animals such as eagles, jaguars, alligators, and monkeys that the indigenous peoples regarded as powerful deities.
The degree of smoothness on these multi-purpose stone slabs was indicative of the social class of the user. The smoother your slab, the higher up you were on the social ladder.
In times past, the dead were wrapped in banana leaves and then buried in people’s front or back yards. After a few weeks, their decomposed bodies were exhumed, and their collected bones were deposited into urns like this one. Reminiscent of a pregnant lady’s stomach, these urns were used to symbolize our inevitable return to where we come from. The urns also held stone and ceramic objects that were believed to be used by the dead in the underworld.
El Juego del Comelagatoazte (The Comelazatoazte Game)
This religious ceremony was performed with two men on either end of an elevated seesaw-like device. The men would ride the contraption in up and down movements. Although this ceremony wasn’t performed on a specific date, I’m unaware of its purpose or significance.
El Juego del Volador (The Game of the Flyer)
This ceremony was practiced along Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast to celebrate the harvest and the elements. Placed in village plazas, the tops of these 8-meter poles featured a deity on loan from the local temple. Two to four children or men would be tied to ropes suspending from the poles, and they’d “fly” in circles around the pole while descending to the ground – a ritual symbolizing the natural elements descending to the earth. Dancers at the base of the pole would wait to receive the voladores. This religious ceremony was also practiced in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Check out this video for more insight into this ceremony.
While there are several other statues, artifacts, and paintings worth exploring at the convent, judging by the looks of the convent from the outside, we would’ve never guessed that there’s so much invaluable Nicaraguan culture and history preserved within. Overall, our visit there was a pleasant surprise.