Cathedral Basilica of St. James the Apostle in Tunja

Cathedral Basilica of St. James the Apostle (in Spanish: Catedral Basílica de Santiago Apóstol) also called Tunja Cathedral, is the oldest Catholic cathedral church of Colombia, which is consecrated under the invocation of the apostle Santiago el Mayor.

The building is located on the eastern side of Bolivar Square in Tunja, in the historic center of the Colombian city of Tunja (capital of Boyacá department).

The cathedral is the main temple of the archdiocese of Tunja and archbishop’s seat, from its elevation to diocese by the bull of Leo XIII called Infinitus love and published on July 29, 1880.

Its construction was contracted by Juan de Castellanos and Gonzalo Suárez Rendón to the teacher Pedro Gutiérrez, who began works in 1567.

Its style can be located within the Elizabethan Gothic, although some later remodelings have added neoclasic elements to the construction; Has a single tower and its interior is made up of three naves with lateral chapels.

The Renaissance style cover designed by Bartolomé Carrión in 1598.

The historic section of Tunja (including the cathedral) was declared National Monument of Colombia by Law 163 of December 30, 1959.


A very simple church, of modest materials and covered with thatch roof was constructed in the Greater Place to the foundation of the city, so that the Augustinian priest Fray Vicente de Requejada officiated the first mass in 1539; The temple received the name and consecration of Our Lady of Guadalupe and was built by the carpenter Gregorio López, finishing the work on Christmas Day 1541, just nine months after King Carlos V granted Tunja the title of “Very noble and very loyal city.”

Although this construction caught fire in 1553, the building was restored and continued to be used precariously. Apart from the altars and the choir, the first temple counted on a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.


The construction of the present temple was contracted by the priest and cronista Juan de Castellanos and the founder of the city Gonzalo Suárez Rendón in 1562, but only in 1565 began the works that they extended initially until the 29 of June of 1574, date in which The new Templo Mayor was inaugurated.

For the construction, Bartolomé de Sosa was responsible for the erection of the walls, and Francisco Abril, who signed a contract on October 28, 1567, for the drawing, cutting and assembly of the coffered ceilings.

However, April died in 1572 and the completion of the works was awarded to Bartolomé Moya, who was favored by a auction in his favor for a cost of two thousand gold pesos on August 10, 1572.

For the work were based on the designs Originals by Pedro Gutiérrez, who projected a single rectangular nave that coincides with the current main nave.

In 1569 the chapel of the Mancipes is annexed in the nave of the gospel (which is also called Veracruz or Carmen), which is composed of octagonal casetones and rhombic spaces decorated with florets, and of Mudejar coffered ceiling that adorns the Ceilings and arches.

The chapel was built by the mayor of the city Pedro Ruiz Garcia and finished by his son, Captain Antonio Ruiz Mancipe.

At the same time, at the request of Juan de Castellanos, the chapel of Santiago is also built on the nave of the epistle, determining its character as a basilica, since the central nave protrudes vertically from the two sides.

The Renaissance triptych of San Laureano And of San Sebastián, as well as the coffered whole with Mudejar reminiscences, elaborated by Francisco Abril and Bartolomé Moya, also come from this period.

The construction begins to be used on June 29, 1574.

Between 1598 and 1600 the Renaissance style cover designed by Bartolomé Carrión was constructed, of which the Spanish academic Enrique Marco Dorta affirmed that it was “the most beautiful work that the architecture of the Renaissance had produced in Colombia”.

Contemporary to it, the widening of the eastern sector of the construction and the installation of the floor in brick plank are recorded.

On November 27, 1607, the priest and Spanish chronicler Juan de Castellanos dies in Tunja as the first regent of the Cathedral and finisher of the work, its remains rest in the cathedral as well as those of the founder of the city.

During the seventeenth century, new chapels were added to the complex, including the Chapel of the Brotherhood of the Clergy or the Childhood built by Cristobal de Morales Piedrahita and decorated with paintings and an altarpiece, which is currently the largest in the cathedral.

The years 1660 and 1665 are annexed the chapel of Domínguez Camargo, ordered by the poet santafereño Hernando Domínguez Camargo.

The sacristy, the choir and the baptistery were also elaborated during this century, complementing the whole.

The bell tower and the offertory would be the last elements in completing the construction.


The territory of Boyacá, which significantly supported the independence of Colombia, suffered the rigors of the Spanish reconquest when in its main towns were shot many of the heroes of the revolution.

Tunja was the scene of the execution of the governors Juan Nepomuceno Niño, Jose Cayetano Vásquez and the lieutenant colonel Jose Ramon Lineros by order of the pacifier Pablo Morillo 29 of November of 1816, and 20 of September of the same year Alberto Montero, Jose Manuel Otero and Ignacio Plaza would run with the same fate, their bodies were abandoned first in the church of San Laureano and later they were transferred to the cathedral.

The Colombian government asked the Holy See in 1851 to create a diocese in Boyacá to deprive the archdiocese of Bogotá of its prestige, which opposed the government’s laws against the Church, but only until July 29, 1880 Request is granted by Pope Leo XIII, through the publication of the bull Infinitus love.

This diocese included the Provinces of Tunja, Tundama, Vélez, Socorro and Casanare.


At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century a restoration is undertaken by Ricardo Acevedo Bernal which includes new elements of neoclassical republican style, such as the cupola, projected according to the Chapter Act of April 27, 1898 and completed 1910; This intervention raises the central nave improving the basilical volume, the tower is remodeled, the atrium is expanded, electric light is installed and some original elements of the temple are recovered, such as the Mudejar coffered ceiling.

A tremor on November 1, 1928, caused damage to the dome and its supports, which were repaired by the Dutch architect Antonio Stoute in civil works that extended from June 30, 1929, to March 19, 1931.

On the 20th Of June 1964 the Diocese of Tunja is elevated to archdiocese and on September 4, 1980 the cathedral receives the title of Basilica minor.

Around 1965 the architect Carlos Arbeláez Camacho realizes an adaptation of the presbytery and proposes the recovery of the original design of the Cathedral.

However, the new restoration was only contracted until the early 1980s, financed by various public entities and NGOs in the jurisdiction.

The works, which would last 25 months, ended on October 24, 1986, when the Archbishop, Archbishop Augusto Trujillo Arango, made the total consecration of the cathedral remodeled, the original cross of the exterior of the cathedral was demolished by the earthquake of January 19, 1995 and replaced in a different way than the original structure in 1997, which was also demolished by an earthquake that occurred on August 20, 2012 and restored months later.

Urban context

The cathedral is located on the eastern side of Plaza de Bolívar de Tunja, located between 19th and 20th streets and 9th and 10th races, in the historic center of the city.

This square is loaded with historical and cultural symbolism, epicenter of the main religious and civil acts of the city. Formerly known as Plaza Suárez Rendón, in honor of the founder of the city who lived in the house adjoining the cathedral, was renamed in memory of the liberator Simón Bolívar, and in the center of which is located the equestrian statue of the liberator in bronze, which Was inaugurated on August 7, 1891, although the sculpture actually dates from 1883, since originally it was made for a park in Bogota, which was later donated to the Sovereign State of Boyacá.

Apart from the statue of Bolivar and his pedestal, the square is a pedestrian space with no other elements in it, in the style of the Bolivar Plaza de Bogotá.

It is located in the parish of Santiago, ecclesiastical territory of the archdiocese of Tunja being its main church.

Around the square of Bolivar stand, outside the cathedral, several buildings.

To the south side is the Boyacá lottery building, the office of the municipal mayor and the convent of the Company of Jesus (headquarters of the Colegio de Boyacá), to the north is the house of Captain Gomez de Cifuentes, known as the Palace Of the Tower (present building of the Government of Boyacá), to the west the house of the captain Martín de Rojas, current headquarters of the Cultural Institute of Beautiful Arts (ICBA) and to the east, sharing the side of the cathedral is the house of the founder Gonzalo Suárez Rendón (at the moment it is a museum and soothes of the Secretary of Culture and Tourism of Tunja and the Boyacense Academy of History).

The buildings adjacent to the cathedral are: the Cural House on the left side of the facade and the Capitular House on the right side, which have an atrium of seven steps on its front at a height a little higher than that of the founder’s house.

The Casa Cural, also known as “La Ataranza” (a term used to mean a “two-storey shed intended for storage or workshop”) was built in 1567 with the initial purpose of storing the materials for the construction of the cathedral and later as an administrative unit, has two floors, the upper one has columns of strong striate of Doric-Tuscan order supporting arches of half point and a large balcony of two bodies between the gallery and the greater church, and in the ground floor it emphasizes a cover of stone, whose lintel and entablature are supported by ribbed brackets.

Other interesting constructions of colonial style complement the framework of the square, such as the houses of Captain Francisco Yáñez and that of Don Juan Agustín Niño y Álvarez.


The church is characterized by a basilica floor composed of three main transept-like naves called the central nave, the nave of the gospel (north) and the epistle nave (south), to which four smaller side chapels, Dominguez Camargo and Mancipe North), and Brotherhood of the Clergy and Santiago (to the south), and two frontal chapels that coincide with the ships gospel and epistle.

The three naves have the same height and are separated by two lines of seven cylindrical columns supported in great plinths (two of them circular) and joined by pointed arcs that define the central and lateral nave, describing a cruise that is formed from the An old presbyter by extending his arms through his smaller chapels, in which there is raised a half-point torus arch that supports the Florentine dome.

In the three naves the ceiling presents a colorful Mudejar coffered ceiling, while the floor is Covered with bricks plank made of industrial rhomboid on the side and rectangular aisles in the central nave.

The altarpiece of the high altar is composed of three corpses and five streets of carved and gilded wood, and on its roof there are carvings in the four jaldetas and cuadrales in its corners; the bodies of the altarpiece are separated by baroque friezes and the streets by Corinthian columns, with Mannerist ornamentation in the first lower third and striations in the rest of the shaft, framing a set of fourteen niches based on plaster where the polychrome sculptures of the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Virgin and the twelve apostles, Works by the master Agustín Chinchilla of the seventeenth century.

The exhibition was carved in wood and gold during the eighteenth century by Pedro Caballero, designed to house the custody made by the Spanish goldsmith Juan de la Iglesia in 1735, which weighs 14 pounds of solid 22-carat gold, adorned with over 1,000 gemstones, including pearls, emeralds and amethysts.

The exhibit was withdrawn Of the priest and installed in the sacristy in the last restoration of the church to allow a complete visualization of the main altarpiece.

On the north side of the building stands the altar of the Estrada, where the tomb of the citizen Francisco Estrada, built in 1593 on one of the ancient side entrances of the temple stands out for its artistic value.

It is also highlighted in a column on the side Of the Gospel the triptych of San Laureano and San Sebastián with the cross of the conquest with which the first mass of the city was celebrated, which are in an altarpiece donated in 1550 by Lázaro López de Salazar.

The dome features a mural painting of Gloria and the Triumphant Christ, made by Ricardo Acevedo Bernal, as well as the pechinas of the arches representing the four evangelists.

The cylindrical drum or dome of the dome contains eight windows with arch of Half point, two of them closed and the remaining six are lattice.

Among the pendants of the dome are four golden shields: the coat of arms of Colombia, the shield of Tunja, the papal shield of Pius X and an ecclesiastical shield that seems to belong to a bishop.

In other places of the cathedral there are also works by Gregorio Vásquez de Arce and Ceballos, Juan Bautista Vásquez, Angelino Medoro and Francisco del Pozo.


In the smaller chapels different architectural styles can be observed, although they are predominantly Baroque and Mudejar.

In the chapel of Domínguez Camargo, built by the priest and poet Hernando Domínguez Camargo according to the provisions of his will of 1659, stands out the arch with stone arch forged Mannerist taste, carved in polychrome wood displaying the stems of a fleshy vine with numerous clusters and abundant leaves, works of the 17th century tunjana school.

In this chapel is the tomb of the founder of the city, Captain Gonzalo Suárez Rendón, decorated with a mausoleum and a marble tomb made by the Italian sculptor Olinto Marcucci in 1939.

In the same place in which the monument was placed, there was an access to the temple from the Atarazana that was closed, destined to the service of the own founder Suárez Rendón.

The Chapel of the Brotherhood of the Clergy is also known as the chapel of the Child Mary, was built by Cristobal de Morales Piedrahita in 1620 and is currently the most spacious of the cathedral.

In it stands the main altarpiece, installed in 1640, formed by five streets and three bodies in which the Virgin Mary is represented in bas-relief, the presentation in the Temple, the betrothal and the Immaculate Conception.

On the side walls there are two smaller altarpieces dedicated to pictorial works on the life of St. Pedro; The chapel is complemented by two vaulted crypts in brick and a small private vestry.

Sharing the nave of the epistle is the small chapel of Santiago, elaborated in century XVI.

The chapel of the Mancipe dates from 1598 and was decorated by the Italian sculptor Angelino Medoro with a Renaissance coffered ceiling inspired by the model proposed by Sebastiano Serlio, based on carpentry and ironwork enriched with gold and paintings.

In this chapel there is a Calvary Renaissance carved in polychrome wood and sgrained with a combination of gold and paintings with figures of arabesque angels and flowers, which was elaborated by Juan Bautista Vásquez in 1583 by order of Gil Vásquez.

In the chapel two paintings by Angelino Medoro stand out: The Prayer in the Garden and the Descent of the Cross, both painted in 1598 and an altarpiece of Calvary, by Juan Bautista Vásquez, as well as the statues brought from Spain that represent the Dolorosa, San Juan, Magdalena and San Pedro Martyr of Verona of this same artist.

At present this chapel houses the museum of the cathedral.


In the exterior part of the cathedral stands the Renaissance doorway designed by Bartolomé Carrión, who was awarded the works for a cost of one thousand three hundred pesos of gold of twenty carats, for which he was presented as guarantor Juan de Castellanos.

The door contains a plateresque decorative elements and Elizabethan Gothic; The door has a half-point arch framed with four columns of fluted shaft (two on each side), whose capitals are in Corinthian style and decorated with figures of stylized birds instead of Canyons.

In the frieze of the entablature, triglyphs and metopes alternate with bucurais.

The cornice is crowned by a stone figure of the Virgin kneeling in an attitude of prayer, which is in a niche framed by two columns of corinthian capital and Cornices with cantilevered corbels, and on both sides the stone sculptures of St. Peter and St. Paul and pyramids with spheres at their upper end.

The cover has a tone of amber stone that formerly contrasted with the rest of the white facade, but at the end of the nineteenth century the main frontispiece was partially veneered in stone or painted in this color, leaving this element hidden in the middle of the rest of the facade.

The facade is rectangular and is formed by three vertical bodies divided by four pilasters; In the central body is the cover and on the sides there are two small doors in a half-point arch and two rectangular windows.

At the top of the facade is finished by a central tympanum delimited in the pediment with an image of the Crucified, cornices and a balustrade run over.

The date of construction of the bell tower is not known with precision, but its rise is estimated after 1610 at the request of Juan de Borja y Armendia, 36th Seventh President of the Royal Audience of Santa Fe de Bogotá.

Nevertheless, the reform made in 1891 by the engineer Ramón Peña changed considerably its aspect of Mudéjar tower with cover of mud roof tile in the style minaret.

The tower, joined to the south side of the church facade by a partition, has two bodies, the lower body has the same height of the lateral aisles and the upper one is perforated with four arched open arches of half a point in each one of Its fronts and framed with pilasters, sits on a quadrangular perimeter base topped with a cornice and a pointed octagonal bulbous spire.

Each vain is adorned in its upper part with an analog clock of arabic numeration; In addition the frontal vain counts on a big bell and the vain of the south side with two small bells.