The cacique of Sutatausa: a story of resilience

View of Sutausa

The doctrinal church of Saint John the Baptist in Sutatausa, Colombia is now open to the public after recent restoration. Inside, you can find a syncretic mural depicting an indigenous Muisca praying. This representation of exceptional quality, beyond the archaeological testimony, tells us the story of the resilience of a people in the preservation of its traditions, resisting to time, destruction, and oppressors.

Once upon a time there was a village, apparently quite ordinary, called Sutatausa (Cundinamarca), about 50 miles from Bogotá and some 1,5 miles above sea level. Few people are aware of this village, even among Colombians, but it is home to unique testimonies to the region’s history. A past which History has tried to erase, in vain. In the small village, remains of indigenous rock paintings can be found coexisting with a doctrinal church decorated with syncretic paintings, and an ancestral textile tradition. All of these elements are pieces of the puzzle that is the complex history of the local population.

Church of St. John the Baptist, Sutatausa, Colombia

Rewriting history

Our story begins on the heights of this altiplano, where an indigenous population that the colonists called the Muiscas have lived since the 8th century C.E.. This population is sadly remembered for having been brutally decimated while trying to resist the invader in the 16th century. Oddly, even in Colombia, the tale of this particular event is recorded as a “collective suicide” of nearly 5,000 natives, rather than as what it is: a genocide. Dying for one’s freedom is a much more romantic notion than having one’s hands, feet, and legs cut off by some Spanish colonizer, and makes it easier to put aside the systematic and systemic barbarism of the Spanish invasion. After the mass murder, the surviving Muisca were taken to “Indian villages” – a model similar to the Native American Reservations – where their evangelization begun. To facilitate the Christianization of the local populations, Spanish friars had doctrinal churches erected, among which was the Church of Saint John the Baptist of Sutatausa, which contains one of the rare tangible testimonies of the Muisca people in the days of the Spanish colonization.

The Last Supper, Church of St. John the Baptist, Sutatausa, Colombia

An intrudor in the painting

During the restoration of the church in the mid 1990’s, the restorers unmasked a set of wall paintings with Christian iconography dating to the 17th century. Among the classic scenes of the Stations of the Cross, one can see in a corner the representation of a Muisca cacique, or leader, folded up in a praying position and holding a rosary in her hands. She is dressed in a remarkable fabric or manta, decorated with patterns clearly identifiable as indigenous, and which are reminiscent of the painted rock patterns in the region. The exceptional preservation of this mural, each line of which can be distinguished, gives us a unique example of the preciousness of Muisca clothing, incredible fine textiles. Weaving traditions still endure today in the region, although not without difficulty.

La cacica, mural, Church of St. John the Baptist, Sutatausa, Colombia

An exceptional testimony to the preservation of Muisca traditions

Beyond the archetype of syncretism that this young woman can embody, wearing a traditional indigenous garment while taking part in a Christian religious ritual, this mural is also a testimony of the presence of Muisca textile traditions in the 17th century. The richness of the fabric that identifies the young woman as a cacique is evidence for the persistence of status distinction among indigenous populations a century after the Conquest, even though they were prohibited from practicing their culture and traditions.

The goal of the mural is to facilitate evangelization, by using representations of local practices and mixing them with those of imposed worship in the hope that the viewer will identify with the Muisca cacique. However, as Spanish colonists tended to gradually erase all traces of local traditions, we are pleasantly surprised by how this representation bears witness to the persistence of certain indigenous practices in a territory as traumatized as Sutatausa. We can also notice the skill of the artist, undoubtedly of indigenous descent, who still seems to have a precise recalling of the weavings made and worn by their ancestors, although it is impossible to say whether the said fabric had been made recently or miraculously preserved from previous generations.

Epilogue

In Sutatausa today, only 1.9% of the population identifies as indigenous. The city is an example of what the memory of a colonized territory is. Its history has been intentionally blurred, and what should be the collective memory of its habitants is instead an enigma to be deciphered. When one’s own history has suffered no similar interruption, no loss of such scale, one does not make the effort to realize how such gaps can impact the existence of a people. Removing a population from a map is not done through murder, it is done through the erasure of their memory. The work of archaeologists, anthropologists, and art historians is to weave those threads back together in order to rediscover this “lost identity” and “interrupted memory”, to use the words of Diego Martinez Celis, who inspired the writing of this article. To do so, in order to bring memory back to those who have been deprived of it.

La cacica (detail), mural, Church of St. John the Baptist, Sutatausa, Colombia
Photos credit : © Agathe Torres

More information

Martínez Celis, Diego. Arte rupestre, tradición textil y sincretismo en Sutatausa (Cundinamarca), Rupestreweb, http://www.rupestreweb.info/sutatextil.html.

Porras, Yessica. Church of St. John the Baptist at Sutatausa: Indoctrination and Resistance. Submitted as an Undergraduate Honors Thesis for the Department of History of Art University of California, Berkeley, 2014.

Gómez Aguaquiña, Manuel and Facundo Manuel Saravia. “Culta y Lengua Muisca para “dummies”” online presentation, February 2, 2021.

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