Justo Gallego Martínez is building his very own Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo near Madrid, Spain
This is no “model” cathedral and he is neither a qualified architect, nor engineer, nor bricklayer — he is a farmer. “The plans have only ever existed in my head” and have evolved over time in response to opportunity and inspiration. Nor does he have formal planning permission from the authorities of Mejorada del Campo — the town in which it is located (20 km from Madrid under the flight-path to the Barajas airport).
Nor does he have the benediction or support of the Catholic Church. After eight years in a Trappist order — and just prior to taking his vows — he was obliged to leave, considerably weakened by tuberculosis and the monastic regime. His cathedral is dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Madre de Jesús. He explains: “It’s an act of faith.” The cathedral has been bequeathed by him to the Bishopric of nearby Alcalá de Henares.
The shell of the building is complete — covering the 20×50 metre plot [photos]. Some 8,000m2 have been built — or are underway. They include a complex ensemble of cloisters, offices, lodgings and a library. The cathedral already has a dome (modelled on St Peters) rising to some 40 metres, some 12 metres in diametre — whose steel girders were raised with the aid of his six nephews using pulleys. He was unable to get the loan of a crane. In summer volunteers may lend a hand, but for the heavy work he hires a local assistant at his own expense. It is estimated that it may take another 15 to 20 years to complete — although Don Justo does not know. He prefers not to speak about the future. How long he will still be physically able to continue working on it is uncertain.
The mayor of Mejorada del Campo declares that to date not one architect or builder has been prepared to take responsibility for this building. Questions are raised concerning its foundations and bracings, and nobody wants to be responsible for its structural integrity. Given its problematic status, the lack of official support, and the value of the land on which it is located, Don Justo is aware that there is every possibility that the cathedral may be razed to the ground immediately after his death.
He has financed his work by rent from some inherited farmland — some of which he has already sold. Donations from supporters and visitors are welcomed. Most of the construction materials used are recycled (buckets, pieces of wood, plastic tubes, etc) — occasionally obtained from business and construction companies with excess materials for a job. Progress on the cathedral is therefore visibly marked by the nature and quality of materials that he acquires in this way. The columns are moulded using old petrol drums, the window arches carry the marks of the tires they were moulded in and bicycle wheels have been used as pulleys. Strength is ensured by using extra quantities of cement. There has as yet been little time for finishing surfaces. The rose window is without glass — but there is a long mosaic staircase leading to the main entrance.
Justo’s Cathedral is a Monument to the human spirit and its capacity to transcend ordinary constraints and limitations in the most improbable way. Its symbolism is that much greater because it is the act of a very ordinary hero — whose genius lay in his persistence. The cathedral is above all a demonstration in how to implement a dream, however little wider support there is for doing so.
From an architectural perspective, the cathedral has much to be admired as the work of a single artist — and has been duly celebrated as such by both architects and artists. Yet it would appear that little assistance has been forthcoming from either profession. Don Justo has emulated the simplicities of the Romanesque style (Gothic being “too complicated” for his skills and Baroque “does not please me”)
Don Justo’s has achieved no official recognition, despite the attention accorded him by documentary film makers, journalists and tourists. The construction has been undertaken with no official funding and with only incidental and voluntary donations of time and materials from well-wishers. This is most curious in a Europe that is proud of its cultural achievements and expends disproportionate amounts of official funding on events and monuments that are far from demonstrating the dedication and achievement of those such as Don Justo — especially as an inspiration to young people. It is perhaps also curious that no device could be found to facilitate the process whereby others could provide financial assistance to the enterprise. However Don Justo’s achievement is above all a demonstration of how much can be achieved without the kinds of funding typically considered as absolutely essential to any new initiative.
His awesome undertaking has been treated as meaningless both by those in his immediate community (who laughed at him as ‘el loco de la iglesia’) and by the secular and religious authorities. But if Don Justo is to be considered “loco”, what is the price of “sanity” in today’s world?