“Our Lady of Las Lajas”
GUAITARA CANYON, COLOMBIA (1754)
Back in the eighteenth century, María Mueses de Quiñones, a local woman from the village of Potosi, Colombia, often walked the six miles between her village and the neighboring one of Ipiales. One day in 1754 as she was making the journey with her daughter Rosa, they approached the place called Las Lajas (the Rocks), where the trail passes through a deep gorge of the Guaitara River. Maria never liked this part of the trail because there were rumors that a cave in Las Lajas was haunted. Such superstitions remained among the converted Christian Indians.
Unexpectedly, a rainstorm started, and spying a cave ahead, Maria anxiously entered it. While invoking the protection of the Virgin of the Rosary, she suddenly felt someone touching her shoulder – as though to gain her attention. Without looking back to see who it was, Maria fled back into the storm with Rosa protected and sheltered by her mother’s tight embrace.
Days later, needing to follow this same route again, Maria was carrying her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, on her back. By the time she had climbed to Las Lajas she was weary and sat on a rock to rest. The child got down from her back to play. The next thing Maria knew Rosa was at the cave shouting:
“Mommy, there is a woman in here with a boy in her arms!”
Maria became very frightened. This was the first time she had ever heard her daughter speak! She didn’t see the figures that the girl was talking about, nor did she want to. She grabbed the child and ran on to Ipiales. When she told people what happened, nobody at first took her seriously. However, as the news spread some asked if maybe it was true. After all, the child was now able to speak!
A few days later Rosa disappeared from home. After looking everywhere the anguished Maria realized that her daughter must have gone to the cave. Little Rosa often said that the woman was calling her. Maria ran to Las Lajas and found her daughter, kneeling in front of a splendid woman and playing affectionately with a child who had come down from His mother’s arms to let the girl enjoy His divine tenderness. Maria fell to her knees before this beautiful spectacle in reverence and admiration. She knew now that she was seeing the Blessed Virgin and Jesus.
Fearful of ridicule, Maria kept quiet about the event. But, frequently, she and Rosa went to the cave to place wild flowers and candles in the cracks of the rocks. The months went by with María and Rosa keeping their secret. However, one day the girl fell gravely ill — and died. A distraught Maria decided to take her daughter’s body to Las Lajas to ask Our Lady to restore Rosa to life.
Pressed by the sadness of Maria’s unrelenting supplications, the Blessed Virgin obtained Rosa’s resurrection from Her Divine Son. Young Rosa awoke in perfect health. Overflowing with joy, Maria went home. It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather. Friends and neighbors who had seen the child without life were now overwhelmed with awe at this latest miracle. Early the next morning everyone went to Las Lajas – each one wanting to check the details for themselves.
That was when the marvelous picture of Our Lady on the wall of the grotto was discovered. Maria Muese de Quinones could not recall ever noticing it until then. Her delicate and regal features are those of a Latin American, perhaps an Indian. Her abundant black hair covers her like a mantle (The two-dimensional crown is metal and was added by devotees much later on). Her eyes sparkle with a pure and friendly glow. She looks about fourteen years old. The Indians had no doubt: this was their Queen.
The child Jesus is in Our Lady’s arms. On the right side of Our Lady is Saint Francis; on the left side is Saint Dominic. St. Dominic is receiving a rosary from Our Lady; St. Francis is receiving the Franciscan cord from the Child Jesus. These two orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, are the founders of the two Orders that first evangelized Colombia, South America.
The ensemble of colors in the picture gives an undeniable ambience of majesty. The colors behind Our Lady’s head create a splendid background. The burgundy of her dress is a warm, rich red embroidered with a golden flower pattern, giving the impression of the garment of a Queen. Her long hair flows freely in such a way that it appears to be a royal mantle. There is extraordinary good taste in the way the hair is arranged, which reinforces the notion of majesty. Our Lady’s face watches us from on high with a serious probing gaze. She is not smiling. She has the royal countenance of a person who imposes respect with confident strength.
In contrast, the Divine Infant is very amiable and turned toward the supplicant. Thus, instead of having the classic picture of a serious Child and a smiling Mother, here we have the opposite. One could say that He is distributing the gifts while she appears as a Queen. In reality, there is something profound in this contrast. It is the idea that He is merciful because He is seated in Our Lady’s arm. He communicates to the person who prays a little of His happiness to be with her. Our Lady’s image expresses motherhood. She is not looking at Him directly, but she has an enormous intimacy with Him. She extends this maternity to the sinner who kneels before her. She is also his Mother. This image is a masterpiece reflecting both the majesty and the maternity of Our Lady.
As devotion to the image grew, a good road replaced the old trail. In the early 20th century a tasteful gothic church was built over the cave. But who put this magnificent image there? Tests done when the church was built show how stupendous this image actually is. Geologists from Germany bored core samples from several spots in the image. There is no paint, no dye, nor any other pigment on the surface of the rock. No brush strokes are visible despite meticulous inspections. The colors are the colors of the rock itself. Even more incredible, the rock is perfectly colored to a depth of several feet! The picture penetrates the rock miraculously. It is not painted, but mysteriously imprinted in the rock. The colors are not applied in a surface layer of paint or other material, but penetrate deep into the rock. Certainly it has no natural geological cause. There is no known place in the world where nature reproduced human faces with such perfection. These circumstances seem to indicate that it is an akeropita image – akeropita in Greek means not made by human hands, i.e., made by the Angels.
The mystery remains unsolved. Historians and scientists cannot explain this mysterious and beautiful work of art. Were the angels instructed to craft it? Was it by the hand of God?
The church is of Gothic revival architecture and was built from January 1, 1916 to August 20, 1949, with donations from local churchgoers, replacing an old nineteenth-century chapel. The name Laja comes from the name of a type of flat sedimentary rock similar to floor tiles found in the Andes Mountains. The miraculous image on the cave wall can still be seen today, found behind the main altar. The church was literally built around the image with most of the church extending out over the gorge and supported by decorative pilings. A bridge from the church touches the adjacent hillside which makes it easier for the approach of pilgrims. Custodians of the church boast that it has more turrets and spires than Notre Dame in Paris.
Pope Pius XII granted a canonical crowning of Our Lady of Las Lajas in 1952 in the presence of the entire Colombian episcopate. The Gothic church was elevated to the dignity of a minor basilica.