I had a very earnest young man from the Central University as my guide. He was small and dark, but had unsettling transparent eyes of an uncertain colour. I averted my eyes as much as possible so as not to be too distracted, but he kept moving closer and closer to me, invading my personal space over and over again. I believe he was intent on having me hear him and understand him, and he spoke slowly and carefully, so I did not miss much.
The monastery was once much larger, extending for several blocks, but now shrunken to only a couple of acres. It is built almost entirely of rocks from the nearby Pichincha volcano. The inner courtyard is peaceful and serene, such a contrast to the noise and confusion behind the thick wood door. The corridors around the courtyard are covered with works of art by Miguel de Santiago, the most famous painter of the Quiteño school, depicting the life and experiences of Saint Augustine. The style is dark and sombre, known for the 'chiaroscuro' technique, and an occasional incongruent detail, which my guide pointed out, suggesting that the indigenous or mestizo painters made sure to show, albeit subtly, their identity as non-Europeans.
The ceilings of the corridors in the courtyard were once intricately carved with Mudejar designs, each section embellished with a pineapple, but only one ceiling remains, the rest destroyed when soldiers occupied the convent and used the protruding pineapples for target practice.
I remember the chapter room from my visit many years ago, when I was able to climb down to the crypt underneath, but it was closed this time. There are intricately carved stalls and a Calvary altar with a mestizo Jesus (very unusual). The statues are very lifelike, sculpted by a Quiteño master named Pampite. The room was once part of the first university in Quito, and later was the sight of the signing of the acts of independence on August 16, 1809. The assassinated revolutionaries of the time were buried in the crypt.
There is a museum attached to the convent, which houses a collection of Quiteño paintings and sculptures. The wooden statues are remarkable because they are so lifelike and their shiny faces get that way by rubbing them with sheep's bladder and saliva.
I returned to the church, which I have visited before. It is lighter and airier than the usual Quito churches. with dainty designs drawn all over the walls and the Gothic arches. The altars are all huge and covered in gold, as per the usual Quito Church, but moderated by the light coloured walls. I paid attention to the door of the church, which is covered by bronze hearts, that represent Saint Augustine, 'the man with the anxious heart', and motivated wonder about his origins and psychology.Painted Gothic