Justo Gallego Martínez has spent thirty years building, on his own, a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid. His actions remind us of the mythical postman of Cheval, both are examples of an inspiring eccentricity.
Justo Gallego, the man who dreamt a cathedral /
They say that in 1879 Ferdinand Cheval, postman, was walking home when he tripped on a stone. Even though it was not particularly special, that stone drew his attention and triggered the humble postman of Chateauneuf-de-Galaure to gather similar fragments and pile them until he gave shape to his ideal palace, an eight thousand square meter construction that is now photographed by thousands of visitors who stare in wonder, as if they were looking at a Hindu temple.
“Eccentric”, is defined by the dictionary as “a strange, extravagant character” but, in the field of geometry, it also means “what is outside of the center, or that has a different center”. Having a different center is what seems to have led the Frenchman to build his ideal palace and which, later, would lead Justo Gallego (Madrid, 1925) to build his odd Cathedral in the vicinity of the Spanish capital. Thirty years of ceaseless work devoted to erecting his personal monument to faith.
The motive, far from the fortuitous stone that awoke Cheval’s desire to build, was the devastating tuberculosis that left Justo bedridden for months in a hospital. This willful and apparently fragile man left himself in the hands of God: if he was to give him his health back, if he allowed his life to continue until he reached old age, he promised to build a cathedral to honor him, a secret enclosure with the sole work of his inexperienced hands. Indeed, Justo lacked the most basic understanding of building work: the former monk of a Santa María de Huerta monastery, he was never able to finish his elementary studies because of the outburst of the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, this was not an obstacle for this man of faith who was able to, in a short period of time, obtain the necessary understanding of architecture and construction by reading ancient books on cathedrals and castles, some written in Latin.
Justo’s prowess, visited every summer by two-thousand people, was featured in 2005 in the ad of a well-known soda company during an exhibition in MoMA New York, something that does not seem to affect the authentic ascetic who wakes up every day at six in the morning and works tirelessly until six in the evening. It is his cathedral, the conclusion of his promise, the only thing that concerns this octogenarian who sees the decline of his life without having fulfilled his oath and his dream.
A well-known Chinese story tells the tale of a village at the edge of a mountain covered by a dark shadow, which ruined the crops and made the skin of their inhabitants pale. One day, the oldest man went to the mountain with the purpose of moving it. To do so he carried a small spoon in his hand. When the people of the village called him a madman, he answered: “someone has to start…”
Justo was also considered insane by his neighbors and he had to endure the lies of all those that mocked his grand intent. Similarly, the postman of Cheval was also considered the “fool of the village” by his contemporaries. Both paid little attention to their critics and were able to give shape, based on their perseverance and faith in themselves, to their dreams, materializing what anyone in the “right mind” would have dismissed as impossible or unthinkable.
What we find so enthralling about Justo’s cathedral is thinking about the first brick he lay on the land, that first arch that he thought of without being overwhelmed, that first glance over the empty space where he imagined his promise materialized and without shaking at the thought of all the years he would have to invest in building it. When a visitor takes a picture of the cathedral they seem to understand the mysteries of time; it is not the building itself which is fascinating, but imagining its slow growth, its patient and organic coming together. We are overwhelmed by how a work like this can be erected by a single man who devoted every fruitful fleeting minute of his life to it, and that the only and necessary tool for his work has been his unconditional determination.
Like the villagers buried in the shadow of a mountain, we laugh at the elder’s spoon, we signal him out as a madman to later be surprised in an act of veneration before a sunrise and its fortunate touch. We know that, from now on, the spoon is not important, determination is, free from the worry of time, which can lead us to erect cathedrals or to build ideal palaces in the ephemeral and unrepeatable lapse of our life.Tagged: Justo Gallego, architecture, cathedrals