At a Glance

Las Lajas Sanctuary/ Basílica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de las Lajas/Santuario de Las Lajas

Location: Ipiales, Colombia
Primary use: Roman Catholic Church/ Pilgrimage site
Years Built: 1916-1949
Architect: Lucindo Espinoza
Style: Gothic Revival / Neo-Gothic
Materials: Ashlar masonry (Stone)

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Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia_©Diego Delso

Las Lajas is the most magical church located at the Disney world of Ipiales in Colombia. Clenching to the mountain rocks on one side and the other side connected by an arched bridge, the sanctuary rises above 100m from the canyon of the Guitara river. The fantastical construction and the miraculous events (connected to the church) made the church one of the most visited pilgrimage and tourist sites of Colombia.

The Neo-Gothic Marvel

Three versions of commemorative structures were erected before the construction of the final church. The first shrine was constructed of straw and wood in 1754. It was replaced by a larger domed shrine of brick and lime in 1769. This version included the footbridge that leads to the church. In 1893, the domed shrine was expanded to accommodate the visitors. The current version of the Neo-Gothic church was designed by Lucindo Espinoza, in 1916, whose designs are reminiscent of other Churches built in this period. Some sources also cite Gualberto Perez as the secondary designer of the building. Many religious figures like priests, friars, and chaplains also played roles in the design of the current Church. Built with ashlar masonry, the architectural marvel was constructed by local farmers, who learned techniques as they built.

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Front View Las Lajas Ipiales_©Diego Delso

In contrast to the European Gothic revival, the South American Neo-Gothic architects were taking precedents from the European Medieval models rather than the local pre-existing American Gothic style. True to the Neo-Gothic style (of Latin America), the basilica has typical gothic elements like rose windows, flying buttresses, and decorated pinnacles. The interior of the building was similar to the typical basilica plan, with a central nave and the side aisles, and a vaulted ceiling.  The nave is supported by thin white columns with gold capitals and braced by gold-patterned rib vaulting. The interior is well lit by the stained clerestory windows and decorated chandeliers.

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Las Lajas ceiling_©Diego Delso

The unique feature of Las lajas includes the tracery, made of stone supporting the stained glass windows.  The light color of the stone contributes to the decorative look of the exterior, also endowing it with the mystical air. Even though the practices of the architect Espinoza were unknown, his personal creative touches in the form of site design and ornamentation imbue the sanctuary with its visual power and showcase the Church as a Neo-Gothic marvel.

Legends of Las Lajas

1. The Legend of Rosa

In 1754, a tribal woman named Maria Mueses de Quinones and her deaf and mute daughter Rosa were caught in the middle of a storm in the Guitara canyon. So they decided to wait out the storm in a cave. To Maria’s surprise, her mute daughter exclaimed that the Virgin Mary was calling her, pointing to the illumination at the top. That was the first time Rosa spoke. Maria kept this miracle a secret and left the place after the storm.  A little later, Rosa died of illness. Maria took her to the same cave with the belief that Virgin Mary would save Rosa. As luck had it, the Holy Mary appeared in the cave and revived her daughter. 

The local legend of Rosa made people get the wind of the legendary place and begin thronging it for a single glance. It made the basilica the pilgrim spot. On completing the pilgrimage, many pilgrims left plaques to commemorate their journey and/or to ask for a blessing from the Virgin Mary for themselves and their families. It has left the Church with several plaques down the staircase.

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Plaques on the sides of the staircase_©TiagoFernandez

2. The Legend of Mystery Mural

As is the legend of Rosa, a part of folklore is the painted image of the Holy Mother of Jesus behind the altar,  holding Her Divine Son in Her arms, flanked by Saint Dominic and Saint Francis on either side, at the end of the church. A few German geologists tried to look into the mysterious painting by taking some part of the rock. They found that no dye or any pigment was used to paint the mural and it would have formed naturally. While it might take years to get to the bottom of the facts, the mural still holds a mystery that might never come to light.

Despite the remote location of the Sanctuary, the secret of the mural attracted many tourists to visit Las lajas and investigate the painting. As a result of documentation of these legendary beginnings and murals, the mystery around the church continues to grow.  It became the spectacle one must have on their places-to-visit list. 

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The mysterious mural of the Virgin Mary with Christ (C), St. Dominic (L), and St. Francis_©Oscar Garces

3. The Nation of Believers and the Symbol of Faith

Colombia is marked by criminal violence like drug trafficking, kidnapping, murders, etc., for decades. Religious actors have been the key factors for peace through high-level efforts by Catholic teachings of the church or through the priests who were directly involved in peacemaking.

The cultural characteristics of Colombia prove religion to be most prevalent in the lives of people. Though they allow freedom of religion, over 90% of Colombians identify with the practice and beliefs of the Roman Catholic church. Las Lajas is primarily populated by the local Catholics who come to pray and come to mass. Each year Las Lajas Sanctuary presents a street festival in September and invites parishes and priests from neighboring countries and pilgrims from all over the world. For two weeks, the streets surrounding the sanctuary come alive with the cultural activities that take place to honor the miracle of the church. This leaves the church with colorful plaques (the reflections of beliefs) on the sides of the staircase. 

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The statue of Chereb with a watering can_©backpackways

The roof of Las Lajas is designed to form a cross, which is common in the Gothic style.  On the bridge that leads to the church, a statue of Chereb holds a watering can in its hands, pouring into an indentation in the carved balustrade. The water which is drawn off from the cherub is regarded as sacred and blessed and brought back home. Further, there are many pieces of religious artworks that include statues of white angles with instruments. Hence Las Lajas stood as the symbol of faith in Colombia. 

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The statues of white angels with musical instrucments_©backpackways

Despite the cultural heritage and religious faiths, the architectural beauty and the grandeur of the Church inspire tourists and non-religious visitors to enjoy the basilica and its dramatic settings. The legends of Las Lajas made Colombia shift from terrorism to tourism, contributing to the livability of the country. Further, Colombia is no longer a dangerous haven of drug lords and gun-toting bandits but is a traveler’s paradise with a rich history and bountiful natural attractions.

References:

  1. Bonfitto, P., n.d. World architecture and society.
  2. The Epoch Times (Singapore). 2021. Colombia’s Astonishing Las Lajas Shrine. [online] Available at: <https://epochtimes.today/colombias-astonishing-las-lajas-shrine/> 
  3. Anonymous, Las Lajas Sanctuary: History and Architecture of Las Lajas Sanctuary, 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.masterclass.com/articles/las-lajas-sanctuary#style-and-architecture-of-the-las-lajas-sanctuary> 
  4. Khan, T., 2018. Las Lajas Sanctuary: A Church with a Mysterious Mural Nobody Can Explain. [online] Ststworld.com. Available at: <https://www.ststworld.com/las-lajas-sanctuary/> 
  5. Anonymous, Las Lajas Sanctuary: The Most Beautiful Church in Colombia. 2018. [online] Available at: <https://medellinguru.com/las-lajas-sanctuary/> 
  6. Sites.psu.edu. 2021. Colombia: A Nation of Believers | South American Media and Communication. [online] Available at: <https://sites.psu.edu/southamericanmediaandcommunication/culture/colombia-a-nation-of-believers/> 
Author

Guruprasath believes in a conscious approach towards architecture, which fulfills the intentions of the people towards the built spaces and vice-versa. He is more interested in understanding architecture, which made him incline towards writing on architecture. He also enjoys reading and writing other stuff.

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