Travels March 2008

The Caudillo’s Cloister

Searching for tranquility in the monastery Franco built
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FRANCO'S TOMB, in the Valley's underground basilica

I did manage to get out long enough to visit the Escorial. The building tends to inspire strong, even violent, reactions, and it’s not hard to see why: its austerity and symmetry can seem cold, even inhumane. Nor does it help that its founder played a leading role in the “black legend” of Spanish Catholic fanaticism. (Philip, who ordered the Armada to sail against England, was at the Escorial when he learned of its defeat.) The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called the building, with its collection of 7,000 saints’ relics, an expression of Philip’s “cannibal egotism.” Franco, who considered himself Philip’s heir as defender of Spanish Catholicism, clearly took Juan de Herrera’s design for the Escorial (readily identifiable by its peaked slate roofs and paucity of ornament) as inspiration for his own monastery-mausoleum. Back at the Valley, with the Escorial fresh in my mind, I found this influence both striking and illuminating.

Each morning, at 20 minutes before 11, I followed the monks down a 300-foot-long passageway, up which a frigid draft blew constantly. The tunnel, cut straight into the mountain, was lit by candelabra fitted with dim energy-saving light bulbs, and evoked the set of an old Christopher Lee horror movie. At the far end was an elevator that took us more than 150 feet down to the basilica, also known as the crypt—the heart of the complex.

Carved out of the mountain, and in the shape of a cross, the sanctuary is 850 feet long; the main altar sits under a dome more than 120 feet tall at its peak. The barrel-vaulted nave made me think of a Washington, D.C., subway station, only with tapestries depicting the Apocalypse hanging from the walls. There is practically no natural light, and at the moment of consecration during the Mass, the entire space goes dark except for a pair of spotlights trained on the altar. The place feels just like what it is—a gigantic tomb.

In fact, darkness is one of several features that starkly distinguish the Valley from the Escorial, which, in spite of its coldness, is a vast receptacle of light, with hundreds of windows and more than a dozen courtyards. The two constructions are also hugely separated by standards of quality. From the granite-and-marble statues of Old Testament kings above the main courtyard, to the blue azulejo tiles in the royal apartments (to say nothing of the Titians, El Grecos, and Riberas), the Escorial has borne up splendidly over four centuries. The Valley is already going to seed. Water stains that look like streaks of guano from enormous pigeons mar the basilica’s walls. The colossal statue of Saint John the Evangelist, at the base of the mountaintop cross, is missing a chunk of his left foot. Above all, the Escorial’s harmonious proportions put the oppressive gargantuanism of the Valley to shame.

As the Escorial is a monument to Philip’s Hapsburg dynasty, the Valley is unabashedly a monument to Franco, who lies buried behind the main altar, his gravestone always covered with fresh flowers. The Caudillo’s coat of arms is carved three times into every one of the basilica’s pews and also above the door to the choir in the apse. Yet for the work of a 20th-century tyrant, the Valley is in a way remarkably modest. Franco’s name is present only on his gravestone, and his image is nowhere to be found. Where Stalin or Saddam would have crowned the edifice with a self- aggrandizing statue, Franco put a cross.

It was an astute choice. Three decades after the advent of Spanish democracy, the cross is still there; a statue surely would not be. The Valley is thus a fitting symbol of Franco’s regime, which owed its longevity largely to its symbiosis with the most-traditional elements in Spanish society and culture, and with none more closely than the Church.

Padre Isidoro referred to Franco often during my visit, and always with respect, but never in a political context, only as founder of the Valley. Politics is something the monks obviously wish they could forget all about. He also showed me a book by one of the monks, for sale in the guesthouse foyer (though not in the basilica gift shop, where most visitors go). The book, whose cover bears a photograph of its subject kneeling in prayer, is titled Francisco Franco: Exemplary Christian. Just the way he wished to be remembered.

Francis X. Rocca lives in Rome, where he is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service.
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