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Twinkle Twinkle Tunja’s Stars – Tunja, Colombia

Twinkle Twinkle Tunja’s Stars
Tunja, Colombia

My first gaze of a mission church in San Diego, California was an epiphany.

Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo
Amazed by the generous devotion expressed in preserving this humble structure, I was even more awe-struck by the charm of a typical Spanish colonial church that became a stimulating pursuit.

This architectural morsel of gem, vernacularly folksy looking enough that my architecturally challenged friend commented that it’s not historic and photogenic enough, adamantly snapped a shot of it with me in the foreground.

Although I’ve been exposed to such legacies while growing up, the flickering flame of imprinting and fixation at this significant type of architecture I first laid my eyes on was still there but tucked within, temporary shelved at the back of my sub-consciousness as I explore the wonders of other places just before hitting the US. Now, the intense and vibrant Latino influence has re-ignited the Hispanic soul in me.

Initially, I thought of being enmeshed myself into the clutches of dominant Anglo-American culture upon arriving in the Land of the Melting Pot, tantalized by the lifestyle glamorized in Hollywood movies.

But that was just as tantalizingly a tease as it can be, remote and alien. And the alternative powerful pull of Latino stream and the outreaching arms of warm welcoming Latino watering holes are too irresistible here in Los Angeles. Resigned to the fact that I can never be at least a brown Gringo, but I can be an Asian Chicano.

Further and farther afield, I found myself expounding on the ever-blooming definition of colonial architecture. In the state capital of vivacious Santa Fe, New Mexico and the vibrant city of San Antonio, Texas, I’ve seen Spanish remnants – rustic (although sophisticatedly enhanced nowadays) and more importantly, captivating. Along came the idea that since California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas were remote, pale, poor provincial cousins of Mexico during those colonial days, it would be another story across the border. It pushed my desire to see the mother lode, down Mexico way.

Across the line, I found myself in the seventh heaven of jaw dropping, starry-eyed, dumbfounded, and deeply trapped whirlpool of ecstasy, much like the creature mentioned in the cliché described as a bullish child let loose on a candy shop full of china. Whatever message it conveys, it means my experience was way beyond my wildest expectation.

Past Mexico and deeper, the definition has been given different tones. Now I’m making headway into South America in the glittering golden hot and exotic churches of Colombia.

Colombian Baroque Glitters But Shyly
In the English world, the subject of Colombian architecture leaves much to be desired.

I tried to scour Amazon and even the database of the Los Angeles Public Library, one of the most endowed in this hemisphere if not in the world, but to no avail, I couldn’t find a book dealing about it. Perhaps if only Colombian churches were built inside out, they would elicit sustained cardiac arresting attention into the crosshairs of the American radar. Even if I found simplistic external similarity between the very popular Californian mission churches – which subject I can order ten titles easily over Barnes & Noble – and the never-heard Colombian ones, and the fact that Colombian interiors are way more outstanding in the showiness scale, I was flabbergasted to find no literary devotion to it.

As a rule of thumb, Colombian churches are not that externally stunning as their Mexican cousins, the keyword here is “external”. Mexican architecture – because of its proximity to the US, the world’s center stage with a powerful audience – drowns all other else, and deservingly so, its rich, diverse, and immense imagery defeats panning to any alternative regional types. Mexican architecture tops it all.

Somehow, for Colombians, flashiness is reversed, perplexing why their façades are so drab and inconspicuous outside but reveal a super hot charged symphony of excitement inside. Perhaps builders during that Baroque era – when beauty was defined as the extreme degree of difficulty of craftsmanship or the pinnacle of chaotic composition, long before “less is more” Zen philosophy and other modern approaches were added as yardstick – have taken it to heart that beauty hides within. Incognito and humility are left outside, while the pleasure of ornateness is to be enjoyed in its inner sanctums.

Like eggs, Colombian churches are wrapped in plain shells that protect a life restlessly alive and kicking inside, full, pulsating, wiggling, swirling, and convoluting rhythms bursting with glittering golden yoke patina exemplified in those I’ve seen in the city of Tunja, 95 miles (150 km.) north of Bogotá.

Tunja’s Golden Status
This alternative to Bogotá boasts three Baroque churches that hallmark the most exquisite, extravagant, and eccentric Colombian colonial architecture, although there are others more, but not as my personal favorites.

It is said that Tunja was a rival of Bogotá in the pursuit of replicating the air and feel of an Old World European city. There may be logic for its ambitious stance to dare oust Bogotá of its seat during those colonial days when air travel hasn’t set off. Tunja’s reduced distance to Cartagena, the seaport and contact point to the outside world, where it all ends to Mother Europe made a difference. Hence, it was able to harness a cultural pivotal role to create a distinct and glorious cultural little Tuscany in Colombia called the Boyacensé.

Here in Tunja the three gorgeous churches – San Agustin, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara attest to its vibrant past, more particularly interesting to me for its magical fission of Mudejar (Islamic Spain) and local American-Indian Styles.

It’s worth to describe my trip to this city even if it’s in passing. The bus-trip road to Tunja from Bogotá is likened to an experience of the movie “Sound of Music” meets Tuscan end-of-spring. The hills are alive…and definitely cool and green, with some golden patches of wheat fields or plain sunburned wild grass landscaping; I was soaking my eyes all trip long into the cow grazed pasturing meadows.

Bogotá is already 8,000 feet above sea level and the climate and vegetation is already alpine, what more of Tunja which is the highest city in Colombia (9,200 ft./2,800 m.). The rolling hills and meandering quiet and modern highway all prompted me to give this journey a two thumbs up. Its setback is its coolness, which for me, has nastily turned chilly because of a spell caused by infection that has finally invaded my stressed immune system and threatening my trip’s onward push. The extreme weather zooming in Colombia, from sweltering Cartagena to freezing Bogotá, was too much to bear.

From its humongous plaza, laid out in a size threatening that of Mexico City’s Zocalo and nestled around an encircling mound, a sunken protective feeling prevails much like when one is within a giant doughnut, or lifesaver tube. The size of the plaza and its imposing cathedral highlight its important status during colonial times.

Santo Domingo Church (est. 1560)
This 16th century church encased in a diminutive size and bearing but with fabulous folksy interior is set on a busy narrow street a block west of the plaza. A quick passing glance is all that it’s worth, but upon entering, the feeling of drabness gives way to distracting excitement.

Santa Barbara
Santa BarbaraE
The church consists of a cramped crude main nave with a shabbily slatted ceiling and plain stucco walls, all in white contrasting at the end with the exquisitely carved gold washed altar and centerpiece retablo (niche panels encasing icons) framed by a proscenium-like (if the altar were a stage) archway. Fiery gold studded ornaments on mercurial red background define the retablo and archway, all combining to spell passion and fullness of life, much like the sensual, magical, and elegant bicolor of the Spanish flag – calienté gold and pimiento hot red.

The side naves evokes the feeling of heaviness pressured down and caved-in by bulky vaults and arches with bloody red soffits decorated in an organized chaos of patterns of strictly laid-out golden floral and vegetal creatures, variations of star and sunbursts, and what have you.

In each pier dividing the naves are ornate red and gold confessionals – those spiritual public toilets, more like royal sedans. Each end of these side naves is marked by a bantam-sized golden retablo.

Overall, no space is left untouched except the plain out-of-place main nave’s ceiling and walls. I suspect the ceiling, under scrimp budget, was hastily and haphazardly replaced from some unfortunate damage or sorts, no one can confirm.

This church was abandoned for the meantime in the mid-1800 due to church and Sstate conflict.

Looking on a different perspective, I’m reminded – the archway most specially – of the royal palace in Bangkok, a Burmese or Khmer temple, or a set in the digitally enhanced version of the movie “The King & I”. Corners and edges give way to frenzied over the top endless articulations, sea critters, tongues of fire and pointy foliage, making me wonder how Khmer, Thai, or even Burmese influence caught on in this locale and its inhabitants’ fancy. This one is even odder for the golden tester, the amplifying acoustical umbrella above the rostrum or pulpit where the priest says sermon, is shaped in the likes of a Mughal pagoda stupa or a royal umbrella used as part of a Sultan’s regalia in the Islamic southern Philippines.

This church houses one large open-fronted chapel – the Capilla of Our Lady of Tunja. Directly opening wide at this church’s left nave, the chapel is more heavily and gloriously decorated with gold and vermilion and made dramatic by the flickering of solemn candle lights, the surrounding effect gives way to evocative mirages of an exotic golden temple. All it needs are Buddhist monks that would add glow to the somber atmosphere with their saffron silky robes. The nave’s red soffit is marked by dense alternate patterns of rising and sinking crosses and octagonals dotted with gold studs and buttons. The sides are resplendent painted story-reliefs drowned by glittering but sooty golden frames in superb carvings. By the way, the front retablo also contains more painted reliefs instead of freestanding images.

Santa Barbara Church (est. 1590)
This church is down the same busy road, away from the plaza, just two blocks south of Santo Domingo. It might just be a missed attraction, if not for its tall bell tower. The façade is marked by a nondescript Roman triumphal arch-looking portal gobbling-up the whole surface. Suffocating neighboring buildings squeezed this church.

The interior sucks attention immediately to its intricate golden altar, directly at the end, from a sloping-down small provincial cinema-like nave, bypassing any side glances to its bare sky blue shabbily plastered walls rigidly decorated by big golden snowflakes. The nave ceiling is just about done in crooked and crude timber log rafters are closely spaced together, eight to twelve inches apart. The still-raw logs might have been passed through the scraping mill once.

The all-out devotion to overkill decoration is concentrated to the main and transept altars marked by their exquisitely detailed retablos, walls, and ceilings and heralded by blue proscenium archways ornamented with gold like a welcoming gateway to a Hindu village celebrating its fiesta.

The retablos are not stunning in size but superb in craftsmanship and more awe-inspiring with gold patina. Along the sides are arrayed frames of old master-style paintings of the 16th century.

The transept altars and crossing have festive folksy ceilings. Artisonado beams and corner bracings are intricately covered with golden geometrical trimmings. The main altar ceiling is highlighted by a big sunburst glued at the center, the sun an ancient religious symbol of the indigenous inhabitants. Crudely but laboriously hand painted roses and leaves stemming from one stalk run along the rafter length. The rafters too are busily tattooed by blue green and fading crimson paint patterns.

Santa Clara
Santa Clara
This overall appearance, except for the sunburst, is replicated in the transept altars, in lesser grand versions. The left wing transept altar houses glass encased ecclesiastical paraphernalia and wardrobe, all reeking with antiquity. A priest’s ancient imperial cape still shows its shimmering intricate embroidery.

Santa Clara Convent Chapel (est. 1575)
A block east of the Plaza on an obscure quiet road lurks this incognito convent that it would easily be missed.

Within is a chapel, with its entrance on its mid side, is a downsized but more elegant version of Santo Domingo, contented with just one nave. It might have undergone a better and careful spatial analysis, or solicited the services of a more experienced architect for the interior can be better appreciated; still the detailing does not digress from the definition of the spectacular hustle and bustle style of decoration and the trademark sunburst on the altar ceiling.

The museum guide toured me up to the choir gallery, the chapel’s counterpart of a cinema balcony. It has patches and layers of crude and folksy wall paper flower-type decorations done in the native xStyle over the random course of time. There’s the wooden Moorish screen in front that practically covers from the public, for obvious modesty requirements the introvert Clair nuns as they attend church service. They are in a worse lot than most Afghan women.


There you have it. Tunja’s three fabulously rich but not famous stars that stole the show in my treasure-hunting trip to Colombia, adding a new chapter in the myriad world of Spanish Colonial architecture. On my arrival in this hemisphere, I even found here the exotic allure as what I’ve seen back in the east and with a heady mix of sultry glitter.

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