The Valley of the Fallen | Inside Spain’s Cathedral of Fascism
This photo series shows the shocking reality of Europe’s most controversial tourist attraction
A teenager performs the fascist salute beside the grave of Primo de Rivera, founder of Spain's falangist movement. Photo: Jesús Aguilar Belloc
Barely 50 kilometres away from the Spanish capital, Madrid, stands the Valley of the Fallen - the last delirious monument to Spain’s former generalissimo, Francisco Franco. Built with slave labour between 1940 and 1958, supposedly as a means of uniting the fractured nation, the cathedral has in fact ended up as the most divisive monuments in Spain, if not the world. For some, it's a site of pilgrimage, but for many more it's a horrible reminder of the murderous realities of fascism.
"Forty years after his death, the battle rages over whether to remove General Franco’s body"
Its foundations could scarcely be more heinous: 34,000 combatants from both sides of the Spanish Civil War - 20,000 identified, and 14,000 unidentified - rest underneath in one of the world’s largest mass graves. Atop those soldiers is a temple that in effect commemorates only two men, Franco and the founder of the falangista movement, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Franco’s government, weeks before the dictator’s death, sealed an agreement with King Juan Carlos I that he would remain here in perpetuity. Forty years after, the battle rages over the decision to exhume Franco’s body, and remove him from his crypt.
Following on from Amuse’s feature in December about the war of historical memory happening over the Valley of the Fallen, I visited the crypt over the course of two months, photographing its iconography and documenting its enduring - if disturbing - popularity.
The main nave is flanked by two immense shields, depicting ‘El Águila de San Juan’ (St. John’s Eagle) and ‘El Yugo y las Flechas’ (the yoke and the arrows) - prominent symbology of the Francoist dictatorship.
Ultra-Catholic imagery, typical of Christian nationalist dictatorships, is clearly visible all over the premises.
The Valley of the Fallen was the first large-scale Francoist work to use slave labour. Thousands of prisoners - the vast majority from the Republican side - were taken from their cells for its construction. The State decided that the convicts in question had to work in order to redeem themselves before God and Country.
Monumental arches surround the temple’s entrance.
The Valley of the Fallen’s cross is currently the biggest worldwide. Standing at 150m in height, it is easily spotted from Madrid. At its foot rests this Pietà sculpture.
Two people observe the basilica’s doors before leaving flowers as an offering for the dictator. National flags are banned inside - unlike flower bouquets, which are seen at all times decorating his tomb.
The great nave was built under the mountain.
Two huge guardian angels protect the access to the place of worship. The statues are made from the bronze of cannons formerly used in the Civil War.
The Valley of the Fallen is visible from miles away. The cross can clearly be seen from one of the main roads out of Madrid.
The Valley of the Fallen’s maintenance costs the public more than €750,000 a year. Despite this, its current restoration cost is expected to be more than €12,000,000, owing to the bad quality of the materials used for its construction.
Since dictator Francisco Franco’s exhumation was announced, visits have increased by 103%. Pictured above are several people attending Sunday mass, which is still entirely sung in Latin.
Jesús Aguilar Belloc is a freelance photographer based in Zaragoza, Spain.