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Unsung Devotion: Gallego Martínez's cathedral of a lifetime

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary and fabricated from scavenged materials, this eccentric Spanish cathedral is a unique architectural bricolage that may never be complete

Only on Sundays does Justo Gallego Martínez take a break from his titanic endeavour. He has been working ceaselessly for the last 50 years on what has by now become a cult landmark in Mejorada del Campo, a village some 20 kilometres from Madrid. It is a self-declared cathedral, devoted to Our Lady of the Pillar, a shrine in the making with no completion date foreseen.

Following an intimate conversation with Our Lady, Gallego Martínez recovered from the severe illness that had caused him to be expelled from the Monastery of Santa María de Huerta, in the nearby province of Soria, where he had intended to spend the rest of his life. At that point, he decided that he would devote his life to God by erecting the building that today bears witness to his tenacious determination.

Skeletal domes form a pepperpot roofscape, while deformed terracotta blocks give the architecture a deliciously woozy quality.


Skeletal domes form a pepperpot roofscape, while deformed terracotta blocks give the architecture a deliciously woozy quality.

Skeletal domes form a pepperpot roofscape, while deformed terracotta blocks give the architecture a deliciously woozy quality.

Roughly half the size of a football pitch, Gallego Martínez’s cathedral is still far from finished: the skeleton of the dome alone, inspired by that of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, took him over 30 years to finish. Now a ghost of the fully-clad structure that Gallego Martínez had devised it to be, this semi-spherical ribcage has become an unexpected contemporary icon of Mejorada del Campo’s skyline.

Bicycle wheels become pulleys, coloured necklace-like beads make for the patterning on the visually saturated windows, springs of all sizes definethe rounded shape of steps and arches alike.

Unlike your average contemporary architectural practice, dangerously disengaged from the materiality of the built entity it claims to be designing (by virtue of the mediation imposed by architectural drawings), Gallego Martínez is in direct and undeniable contact with his work. He has put it together by assembling multifarious bits of debris that he has found or that have been donated. Bicycle wheels become pulleys, coloured necklace-like beads make for the patterning on the visually saturated windows, springs of all sizes define the rounded shape of steps and arches alike.

The matrix of towers at either side of the main nave is made of discarded and deformed terracotta bricks. Despite their beguilingly squashed appearance, they have prompted health and safety concerns that have led the Catholic Church and local authorities to condemn Gallego Martínez’s work as ‘the misguided project of a local eccentric’. The Cathedral is open to the public daily, yet the 84 year old is less interested in entertaining visitors than he is in the industrious diligence of his lifelong task. Volunteers are nonetheless welcome − and so are donors who, like Gallego Martínez himself, would like the building to transcend its creator’s very existence.

Frescos of the Virgin’s life adorn the walls. Our Lady of the Pillar, who appeared to St James, is a major patron saint of Spain and the Hispanic world

Frescos of the Virgin’s life adorn the walls. Our Lady of the Pillar, who appeared to St James, is a major patron saint of Spain and the Hispanic world

FACTFILE

Architect: Justo Gallego Martínez
Photographs: Patricia Mato-Mora

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