Landmarks of Dubious Purpose

by wjw on October 3, 2021

We are zooming about Spain with our friends Terry and Jim, who I’ve known since we were in college. Here we see Terry, in a typical pose, offering a salute to Generalissimo Francisco Franco at the Valley of the Fallen.

This colossal basilica, longer than St. Peter’s in Rome, topped by a 500-foot granite cross, and taking nearly 20 years to build, is a monument to the dead of the Spanish Civil War. Allegedly a monument to both sides (as long as they were Catholic), the mausoleum was constructed to glorify one side in part by forced labor drawn from the ranks of political prisoners belonging to the other. It contains the remains of 40,000 dead of both sides, all mixed and jumbled together. The inhabitants of two graves only were identified, Franco himself and Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Fascist party. (Both of these have now been shuffled out of the basilica to burial elsewhere.)

The scale of the thing is absolutely cyclopean. There’s an entire monastery built to one side, with priests who hold perpetual masses for the dead. There is a huge plaza out front, suitable for marching whole regiments of troops. Part of the plaza was intended as a reflecting pool for the giant cross, but was never completed. Various structures are visible on nearby heights, intended to act as Stations of the Cross for pilgrims making the journey to the basilica, but these were never completed either.

The basilica itself is driven straight into the native rock, an enormous barrel-vaulted shaft leading to a pair of altars on the far end. A couple of side chapels give the basilica its cross shape. (Photos were forbidden, otherwise I’d show you.)

Walking down the vast nave flanked by statues of twelve-foot-tall executioner angels hooded and carrying two-handed swords, I thought, “Holy hell, this is what the whole world would have looked like if Hitler had won.” The scale is inhuman. There is no sign of compassion or sympathy or humanity, and the thing’s considerable impact is down to its monumental size. It achieves its success by assaulting and overrunning the senses.

I think it’s viewed as a kind of embarrassment now. Nobody’s going to knock it down— there are, after all, the remains of 40,000 human beings entombed here— but the current government seems ready to allow it to decay naturally. The reflecting pool and the stations of the cross were never completed. Leaks have forced the replacement of the tapestries lining the nave. Strangely-shaped metal buckets on wheels are placed to catch the drips, and I saw puddles here and there. The funicular railway leading to the base of the cross is out of commission. The plaza outside isn’t in good shape. These problems could have foreseen, but apparently weren’t. No one was going to tell the Caudillo that he couldn’t overcome nature.

I think the designers hoped to inspire reverence, but what they got was dumb shock and a degree of claustrophobia. I was glad to be on my way.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Juanma Barranquero October 3, 2021 at 6:35 pm

Funnily enough, the Valle de los Caídos is used as the secret hideout of an evil character in Richard K. Morgan’s “Altered Carbon”.

I love the hooded, sword-bearing angels, btw. In a WTF?! way, of course.

Peter D. Tillman October 4, 2021 at 12:29 pm

There’s a wonderful ECM jazz track, “Valley of the Fallen” at I have on an old vinyl LP (I think) and of course these days listen to on Spotify:
https://www.ecmrecords.com/shop/143038751045/the-ballad-of-the-fallen-charlie-haden-carla-bley
Good lord, they still list the LP for sale!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ballad_of_the_Fallen
Jazz album of the year in Down Beat magazine’s 1984 critic’s poll!
Do try it. If there are better arrangements for jazz sax around, I’d like to hear about them.
You know, I might have seen her play in the East Bay, in a very pleasant visit just after I got out of the Navy, around 1973…. Lots of good music that trip, picking up the thread with an old college GF, who was between men and looking for distraction & music. I was pleased to fill both needs (and others).

wjw October 6, 2021 at 1:43 am

The Valley of the Fallen would make an excellent supervillain’s hideout, but for one thing. It lacks the big red self-destruct button visible in plain sight.

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