Arts & Tradition

The Las Lajas Sanctuary: Gothic Revival Meets Local Legend

Larger than life: Art that inspires us through the ages
BY Ariane Triebswetter TIMEJuly 19, 2022 PRINT

Inside the canyon of the Guáitara River in Colombia, South America, rests a breathtaking example of Gothic revival architecture: the Las Lajas Sanctuary. This popular spiritual destination celebrates the reputed appearance of the Virgin Mary at the site.

In 1754, a woman named Maria Muneses de Quiñones and her mute-deaf daughter Rosa were caught in a storm, and found shelter in slabs of “lajas,” a variety of local shale, in the Guáitara River canyon. In the refuge, Rosa supposedly exclaimed that she saw the Virgin Mary above one of the slabs. A series of miraculous reports followed and, in the same year, a simple shrine from wood and straw was built.

In the 1800s, further additions were made: a bridge, a brick chapel, and an artificial waterfall that still flows to this day. The current church, funded by local donations, was built between 1916 and 1949 by two Ecuadorians, engineer Gualberto Pérez and architect Lucindo Espinosa. The unusual setting and architecture of Las Lajas makes it one of the most beautiful examples of Gothic revival architecture in South America.

The church, inspired by European Medieval religious architecture, has typical Gothic revival elements including a vaulted ceiling, spires (pointed structures on top of the church tower), and buttresses (structures that support the walls), as well as tracery (architectural ornamental work) made of stone, and multiple decorative elements. The church rises 330 feet above the canyon’s floor; a 160 feet tall bridge connects to the opposite side of the canyon.

In 1953, the church got canonical recognition and was appointed to be a small basilica in 1994. The Gothic revival architecture of Las Lajas still inspires visitors and pilgrims to this day.

Epoch Times Photo
The artificial waterfall of Las Lajas, which dates from the 1800s, shows how natural elements intertwine with human efforts. The waterfall continues to flow today. (Diego Delso/CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Epoch Times Photo
One of the exterior walls of the church shows how unique among Gothic works the Las Lajas sanctuary is. The tracery is made from the local “lajas” stones and the stained glass windows, crafted by Italian artist Walter Wolf, give a lightness and mystical quality to the façade. (Diego Delso/CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Epoch Times Photo
The doors at the entrance of the basilica church show detailed wood carvings that are characteristic of the architectural style, and the image of Our Lady of Las Lajas echoes the legend surrounding the site. The colorful images depict the Madonna and Child, surrounded by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. (Diego Delso/CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Epoch Times Photo
The church’s elegant interior presents breathtaking simplicity. The stained glass windows and decorated chandeliers provide natural light to remind visitors of the legend and inspire them. The basilica is 90 feet long and 50 feet wide with a layout similar to a typical Medieval basilica in Europe. The church has a central nave, side aisles, and a vaulted ceiling. Gothic elements include rose windows, flying buttresses, and decorated pinnacles. The nave is supported by slender white columns, gold capitals, and gold-patterned rib vaulting. (Diego Delso/CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Epoch Times Photo
The ornate ceilings of the Las Lajas church are awe-inspiring. Painted in gold and white and surrounded by stained glass windows blend to form a peaceful and majestic setting. The vaulted ceiling is typical of Gothic Revival architecture, also known as Victorian Gothic or neo-Gothic architecture. (Diego Delso/CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.
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