Author: Roy Lotz
Hero-worship is perhaps the oldest religion there is. But worshipers in Madrid may look enviously upon their fellows in London and Paris. The British capital, after all, has Westminster Abbey, where the ashes of Darwin, Dickens, and innumerable dukes and duchesses are mingled.
Paris too may be even more fortunate for its Panthéon. Inside rest the remains of some of France’s most prestigious individuals – Voltaire (except for his brain and heart), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas – who are celebrated with all the pomp and power of the state. One million people attended Voltaire’s body to this glorious place of rest. Two million joined Hugo. The French know how to honour their human gods.
The Spanish capital does have its own Pantheon, though even the most devout worshiper would be forgiven for not knowing that. Just a ten minute walk from Atocha, the central train station, this mausoleum nevertheless feels out of the way and it is not especially popular. Chances are, if you visit, you will be the only person there. But why is it that Madrid’s Panteón de Hombres Ilustres (Pantheon of Illustrious Men) is so comparatively obscure?
Back in 1837, the decision was made to create Spain’s own Pantheon, using the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande. The idea failed to materialise until 1869, however, when a commission was finally established to decide which bodies to exhume and move to this new prestigious place of rest. But they ran into a problem: the most famous of Spanish bodies could not be found. Miguel de Cervantes’s remains were lost in 1673 (and only tentatively re-discovered in 2015); Velazquez’s body was buried in a church that was destroyed by the French in 1809; and Lope de Vega’s body was thrown into a common grave, lost among the crowd.
Nevertheless, they did what they could; and that same year – with cannonades and great ceremony – the new Pantheon was inaugurated. Esteemed corpses and highly-respected bones, such as that of the poet Francisco de Quevedo and playwright Calderón de la Barca, were transported on decked out floats, accompanied by music and marching soldiers. And then, five years later, in 1874, the bodies were abruptly returned to their original resting places, and San Francisco el Grande went back to being, once again, a basilica.
If you are familiar with Spanish history, you may recognize that this short-lived experiment in hero-worship coincides with the Sexenio Democrático, six tumultuous years of democracy that ended in 1874, with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Now that a king’s royal hindquarters once again graced the throne, the government lost its taste for monuments to non-royal heroes. It was only when that new king was himself dead and buried (1885), and his widow María Cristina became the regent, that the project was taken up again.
The current structure owes its design to Fernando Arbós, who won an 1888 design contest. Trained in Paris, Arbós apparently had a knack for mortuary architecture, as he designed the impressive entrance and chapel in Madrid’s Almudena Cemetery, where over five million people rest in Europe’s biggest graveyard. Arbós’s Pantheon is an attractive building, too. It takes the form of a neo-gothic cloister: a closed hallway surrounding a central garden (technically called a ‘garth’). The façade of the building is covered with horizontal stripes, reminiscent of Italian renaissance structures like the Pisa Cathedral. What gives it away as a modern construction are the two large metal domes crowning either side.
After passing through the ornamental gates, and into the Pantheon itself, you’ll find yourself in the cavernous hallway. Light drifts in through stained glass windows, providing an iridescent glow in the stony silence. Exploring the hall in either direction, you quickly come upon the funerary monuments. There are six inside, and one more in the garth, all beautifully crafted out of the finest materials, bespeaking the grandeur of these illustrious individuals.
But who are they? Raise your hand if you have ever heard of José Canelejas, Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, or Eduardo Dato. Anyone? I didn’t think so. The truth is that this elaborate monument houses the remains of men whom few now remember.
Explaining why these men, in particular, are buried here requires entering into the tumultuous world of the aforementioned restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. This was a constitutional monarchy, when the king and the upper class of the country attempted (and ultimately failed) to achieve political stability after the many civil wars of the 19th century. It began in 1874 with the defeat of the Carlists (supporting a different claimant to the throne) and ended in 1931, with the Second Spanish Republic—though the constitutional monarchy effectively ended long before that, in 1923, when Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a successful coup. Except for Antonio de los Ríos Rosas, who died in 1873, all of the figures inside the Pantheon are directly connected with this period.
Manuel Gutiérrez de la Concha, for example, was a military commander who helped win the war to put the king back in the driver seat. He died in battle.
Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, leader of the Conservative party (which he founded in 1874, and led until his death in 1897), actually wrote the constitution for the new government (1876), which intentionally limited suffrage to reduce the power of the working class. Instead, power was to be wielded jointly between the king and the upper classes. For many years Cánovas took turns being prime minister with Práxedes Mateo Sagasta (also buried here), of the Liberal party, in a kind of make-believe democracy called turno pacífico, in which the “results” from the elections were fixed to guarantee that the two parties alternated.
The constitutional monarchy was, in other words, a democracy in only the most nominal sense. Sagasta was in charge when Spain fought and lost the 1898 war with the United States for control over Cuba and the Philippines, a war that was fomented, in part, by Cánovas’s previous use of mass arrests and torture to repress the Cuban independence movement.
Eduardo Dato was Cánovás’s successor to the leadership of the Conservative party, whose most important act as prime minister may have been keeping Spain out of the First World War. José Canelejas, of the Liberal party, rose to power in 1910, in the wake of violent clashes in Barcelona between anarchists and the Spanish army (a chronic problem during this time). He actually initiated reforms aimed at making the government more democratic, a plan that collapsed when he was shot by an anarchist while window-shopping at a bookstore. Indeed, both Dato and Cánovas were killed by anarchists, too – also connected to the conflict in Catalonia. The two were certainly not blameless: Cánovas ordered the torture and execution of several hundred supposed anarchists in the wake of a bomb attack in Barcelona, whereas Dato was Prime Minister during a brutal military repression of workers in the same city (1920-21).
What these stories prove is that if you want to make your tomb a landmark, you have to do one of two things: do something memorable, or have a memorable tomb. Having (apparently) failed at the former, these men did at least succeed in the latter, for their monuments are quite beautiful. Canelejas’s sepulcher, for example, features a sculptural group portraying the deceased hero being carried down into a tomb by a woman and two burly men. An effigy of Sagasta, meanwhile, reposes under the watchful gaze of a nude woman (meant to represent History), and is accompanied by an mischievous-looking man (meant to represent the People). Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, not to be outdone, is literally crowned by an angel.
In the garth, we find yet another funerary monument, but this one actually predates the Pantheon itself. Constructed in 1853, it originally stood in the San Nicolás Cemetery, near Atocha. However, this cemetery was destroyed at the close of the 20th century, and the monument was relocated here. Though originally constructed for three bodies, it is now home to six, all of them belonging to moderate politicians. Yet these men are from a different era: the early 19th century, several generations before Sagasta and Canelejas. They include, for example, Diego Muñoz Torrero, who played an important role in the creation of Spain’s first constitution of 1812.
Standing atop this monument is a woman sporting a tunic and a spiked crown. This is none other than Lady Liberty. And this version of that freedom-loving female predates the one in New York harbour by about thirty years. It isn’t quite as big, however.
Ironically, the most famous body in the area is not even buried at the Pantheon, but right next door, at the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Atocha. I am speaking of Bartolomé de las Casas, a historical figure of great importance, owing to his advocacy for the rights of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Indeed, he is often considered to be one of the first proponents of the concept of human rights, and is even in the process of becoming beatified by the Catholic Church. More ironically still, though the body is buried somewhere beneath the church, its exact whereabouts are unknown.
This is because the church has had a rough history. The 1888 design contest to build the Pantheon also included a commission for a new basilica. You see, the old basilica—built slowly over a period of hundreds of years—had become derelict and unsafe, so it was torn down to make way for Arbós’s bold Neo-Byzantine design.
But by the time the funds ran out, in 1901, only the Pantheon and the Campanile had been finished. It was only in 1924 that the king authorized new resources to be made available for the project. By then, however, it was decided to abandon Arbós’s plans, and instead build a far more conventional church. This was not the end of the troubles, though, as that building was itself destroyed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, and only reconstructed fifteen years later, in 1951. So you can imagine how Las Casas’s body was lost in all this chaos.
Comparing the impressive Pantheon or the lovely Italianate bell tower (standing somewhat awkwardly over a school that was later constructed around it) with the plain brick basilica, makes one a little sad that Arbós’s vision did not come to fruition. To get some idea of how it may have looked, you can walk over to the Church of Saint Manuel and Saint Benedict, across the street from Retiro Park, to see a lovely neo-Byzantine building also designed by Arbós. It is certainly a lot more visually pleasing than the plain church at Atocha.
But we can at least enjoy the Virgin of Atocha, a wooden sculpture of the virgin and child, dating back to Visigothic times. She is the oldest Catholic patron of the city, and possibly the source of the name “Atocha” itself, as Theotoca is Greek for “Mother of God.” (The other theory—perhaps more plausible—is that the icon was carried to Madrid from a hermitage next to which grew a kind of reedy grass, called “atocha” in Spanish, a name that comes from Arabic.)
As these little histories show, Spain may have a tough time keeping track of and displaying its most illustrious remains, but when it comes to cult images, the country gets top marks.
This article was written by Roy Lotz, an English teacher living in Madrid. Hailing from the legendary Sleepy Hollow (New York), he spends his free time running, reading, and trying to learn flamenco guitar. When he can manage it, he writes and takes photos too. Follow him on IG here and visit his blog Lotz in Translation.