Living Museums

The ex-monk who built the ‘Taj Mahal of Spain’

28 May 2018
Don Justo, now 93 years old

We took the 341 bus from Madrid through abandoned fields carpeted with wild flowers and across the Cañada Real – the largest shanty town in Europe. I was suddenly transported back to India with my family, crammed in the back of a rickshaw weaving through rush-hour traffic and dodging carefree cows. We’re on our way to see the colossal version of the ivory-white maquette that has stood upon our fireplace since my first trip to India 30 years ago. 

We manoeuvre from behind a rusty school bus and catch an accidental glimpse of the back of the Taj Mahal, reflected in the mosquito-peppered Yamuna river below – a sight even more enchanting than inside the walls of the serene marble complex. Just then, the 341 pulled up outside Don Justo’s Cathedral.

Like the Taj Mahal, Don Justo’s cathedral was born out of unwavering devotion to someone, and both of these magnificent specimens of religious architecture rose up from ordinary farmland. But aside from these similarities, the awe I felt on seeing the Taj more than 10 years ago suddenly reemerged as I tilted my head up towards Don Justo’s self-built cathedral.

Steps up to Don Justo's cathedral

Steps up to Don Justo’s cathedral

One unusual detail that sets the cathedral apart from India’s largest Mughal tomb is that its design has been shaped almost entirely by the materials and tools that Don Justo either finds or receives as donations. No plans were drawn up before construction began – Catedral Don Justo is a spontaneous work of art.

DON JUSTO’S STORY

Justo Gallego Martínez was born in Mejorada del Campo in 1925. As a child, he witnessed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, in which countless priests were slaughtered and their churches burnt to the ground. Some years later, this experience would be instrumental in leading him to join a monastery.

As a young man, Justo devoted himself to the Trappist movement, eating a strict vegetarian diet and speaking only when absolutely necessary. After just eight years inside the monastery, however, Justo contracted tuberculosis and was forced to leave.

After he recovered, his request to rejoin the monastery was refused. This apparently led him to rebel and build his own cathedral, for he was determined – one way or another – to devote his life to Our Lady of Pilar, the saint he prayed to throughout his recovery. And so, in 1961, he set to work on Nuestra Señora del Pilar, known locally (and now globally) as Don Justo’s Cathedral.

Don Justo, now 93 years old

Don Justo, now 93 years old

STEP INSIDE

Enter the cathedral via its side entrance and walk straight into the circular altar in the middle. Crick your head upwards and see the impressive but unfinished dome structure, which currently lets in both sunlight and rain.

The central dome

The central dome

The cathedral is massive, magnificent, bright and modern. Inspiration from Gaudí is clear in the bold colours, mosaic floors, and patriotically coloured stained-glass windows he made himself.

On the left, disciples and, on the right, stained glass windows made by Don Justo

On the left, disciples and, on the right, stained glass windows made by Don Justo

In the picture above, you can also see how the columns have been created: malleable tubes of coiled steel wire were filled with concrete and plastered over.

Don Justo’s cathedral is a labyrinth of vast spaces and hidden rooms. There must be around 20 separate rooms within the cathedral complex, each connected by various doors, curved corridors and spiral staircases.

A stairway up to the mezzanine

A stairway up to the mezzanine

You’re free to roam around – the only restricted areas are Don Justo’s small office and some areas that he’s deemed unsafe.

Walking through the mezzanine

Walking through the mezzanine

From the mezzanine, there’s a view of the quadrangle below as well as over Mejorada del Campo and the surrounding countryside.

When these arches are completed with stained-glass windows, they’ll look something like this…

Stained-glass windows painted by Don Justo

Stained-glass windows painted by Don Justo

From the mezzanine at the back, you can get a full picture of how grand and detailed the cathedral is.

A view of the nave from the rear mezzanine

A view of the nave from the rear mezzanine

Back down the spiral staircase, I took this shot through one of the open porthole windows. The cathedral is very much a construction site.

A view from the spiral staircase

A view from the spiral staircase

From the nave, you’re naturally guided through to the small chapel on the west side, and it’s here, among broken statues, that you’ll find Our Lady of Pilar, lit by sunlight beaming through the stained glass in the small dome directly above her.

Our Lady of Pilar inside the chapel

Our Lady of Pilar inside the chapel

Continue walking through the open doors and you’ll be led to the huge open-air quadrangle.

The open-air quadrangle surrounded by cloisters

The open-air quadrangle surrounded by cloisters

From here, you can see the west face of the cathedral, with its spires in various stages of completion. Can you also spot Don Justo reading a book in this photo?

At the side of the cathedral, we can see the disciples facing into the nave

At the side of the cathedral, we can see the disciples facing into the nave

Continue through the cloister and into the crypt beneath the main nave.

The ground floor and crypt beneath

The ground floor and crypt beneath

At the back, we found a recently dug grave, which we suspect may be for Don Justo.

What appears to be a grave

What appears to be a grave

At 93 years old, he’s still going strong, capable of climbing ladders and almost single-handedly building a cathedral. I suspect, and at the very least hope, that Don Justo has many years ahead of him, but his cathedral probably doesn’t.

THREAT OF DEMOLITION

To this day, Don Justo has never managed to obtain a permit to build his cathedral. Despite help from family, architects and volunteers over the years, the cathedral has never been certified as a sound construction. Local councillors believe it is dangerous and would cost too much to make safe, and so demolition remains the cathedral’s current fate.

Fifty-six years of work by just one man have created an unexpected masterpiece. If, like us, you want to save Don Justo’s cathedral from demolition, there are three things you can do: sign this petition, visit Don Justo’s awe-inspiring cathedral to make a donation, and spread the word.

Stamp your feet until somebody listens, because this magnificent cathedral, which will move you as much as it did me, is a national treasure and should be preserved.

INFO

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2 Comments

Alexandra 28 May 2018 at 4:03 pm

I read somewhere that you need a hard-hat in order to enter, is this true?

Reply
Madrid No Frills 28 May 2018 at 5:47 pm

It wouldn’t be a bad idea but definitely not necessary!

Reply

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