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Photo: Denis Dobrovoda.
Justo Gallego Martínez, 2018, in the cathedral he built in Mejorada del Campo, Spain. The self-taught monk even made the crypt he wanted to buried in.

I often wondered about the investment of time and money that went into places people wanted to be buried. In the case of Egyptian Pharaohs and Chinese emperors, it had to do with what they believed would happen after death. But what about European kings and queens? It’s hard to understand.

Today’s story is about a contemporary monk who built a crypt for himself as part of building a cathedral — alone.

Matthew Bremner writes at the Guardian, “One late spring evening in 2018, Justo Gallego Martínez said he would show me his grave. The old man was warming his hands by a stove in the dim back room of his cathedral. A dusty film coated the concrete floor. The shelves and tables were full of relics, screws, chipped wood, crushed glass, half-eaten loaves of bread. A bare hanging bulb cast the room in jaundiced light.

“ ‘I want to be buried here,’ Justo said, signalling around him to the cathedral’s cavernous nave and the 20 trembling towers sprawled across thousands of square feet of his own land on the outskirts of Madrid. … He’d be buried there because it was his cathedral.

He’d designed it entirely in his head, without a single measurement or calculation on paper, without a record of any of the materials he’d used. And he had done it largely by himself. …

“Outside, the uncovered frame of a dome, 35 metres high and 10 metres wide, loomed above us. The nave lurched around 45 metres to our left, covered by a half-barrel vault whose exposed beams curved upwards like a whale’s ribcage.

“The rest of the cathedral was an architectural Frankenstein’s monster propped up on mismatched bricks, tires, wheels, food cans, plastic and excessive quantities of concrete. Large chunks of the building were already in decay, invaded by moss and rising damp. In the aisles dusty cement bags were piled as high as the first-floor gallery. Other rooms erupted with broken tiles, dismantled cement mixers, motorbikes, rotten wood, oxidised saws, festering ropes, chicken carcasses and plastic bags fossilised in pigeon shit. It sprawled over an area the size of a football pitch. …

“Next to the shrine, the floor opened to the darkness of the crypt below. This hole was where it had all begun, Justo said. Here, he had first started to dig, and to formulate his vision. …

“In early 2018, I came across an article in a local paper about an ex-monk building a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, just outside Madrid. For almost 60 years, with no help or architectural expertise, Justo Gallego Martínez had been constructing a cathedral that was almost the size of the Sagrada Familia, using waste and recycled materials.

“When the monk started his project, the locals had called him a madman. Since then he had fought with family members, made enemies and won an adoring international public. He had never gained formal permission to build the structure, which meant it was illegal. …

“As I got to know Justo better, I realized that he was a mess of incongruities. He could be open-minded and bigoted, forgiving and stubborn, kind and brusque, wise and simple. He was a flawed genius, who never sought to be named as such. …

“Justo’s early life was marked by religious fervor, political upheavals and health problems. As a boy, he was very close to his mother. ‘She was the one that taught me the words of the Bible,’ he said. At an early age, he had to leave school to escape the dangers of the Spanish civil war, which ravaged Madrid and its surroundings. His mother’s teachings were a vital part of the little education that Justo would receive.

“The young man had always dreamed of dedicating his life to God. … At the age of 27, he entered the monastery of Santa María de Huerta in Soria, northern Spain. Many of his fellow monks found him strident and difficult; he would work longer hours than necessary and often pray into the night. Insisting on remaining teetotal, he even refused to drink the wine during communion. ‘They were very suspicious of me,’ he once told local journalists. ‘They said I was breaking the rules.’ …

“Justo told me that after he was rejected from the monastery, he went to Mejorada del Campo and fell into a ‘funk,’ what we might consider depression. … Where would he channel his religious fervor? What could he do with himself that would mean anything? It was in the midst of this self-questioning, he said, that it came to him – the idea to build something for his creator: a cathedral, which would demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice himself for God.

“So, in 1961, he started to dig.

“Justo worked feverishly. Alone, he barrelled mountains of dirt, scaled scaffolding with no harness and soldered with no mask. Sometimes he would have visions. Laying bricks, he would suddenly remember the holy trinity, drop to his knees and weep. …

“Justo came from a relatively well-off family who owned land near Madrid. Over the years, he sold much of it to fund the construction of his church. He also relied heavily on charity. …

“Justo hated sharp angles and straight lines and tried to avoid them at all costs. He preferred curves and circles – vaulted ceilings, domes, arches, rounded chapels, annular altars and spiral staircases. ‘God made all things round. He made the planets round. He made the earth round.’

“To make circles he would bend metal rods around columns and draw around circular water drums or tins of paint. But making curves was more difficult. They were expensive and had little tolerance for error. A millimeter of imprecision in one step could culminate in a spiral staircase that didn’t quite reach its landing.

“The curve Justo loved most was the dome, which was modeled on St Peter’s basilica in Rome. With large blue metal girders curving up to a pressure ring at its centre, it looked like a mechanical spider atop the nave. The dome took him 30 years to imagine and seven years to build. It is the only thing I ever heard him boast about. …

“Justo made up for his technical shortcomings by devising strange solutions. He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with concrete to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure for arches. When the columns he built were too short, he filled the gaps with clumps of iron, piling them up like mismatched books to the height of the support beams. He’d then solder them together. …

“Soon there was interest from local newspapers. Then the national press came, followed by journalists from abroad. At the end of 2003, photographs of Justo’s cathedral appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. …

“The cathedral became even more famous in 2005 when it appeared in an advertisement for a new soft drink made by the Coca-Cola Company. Justo only agreed to the advert to get funds to continue building. He wasn’t thinking about cash, only more bricks. Indeed, when the commercial was shot, Justo had no idea of the consequences of his decision: ‘I didn’t know it was going to be on TV. I thought they were just going to print something on the side of the can.’

“There was an irony to the advert’s success. While Justo had tried to embody temperance and humility, one of the world’s biggest brands had turned his abnegation of the ego into the exact opposite – a celebration of individual accomplishment. The ad had made his faith synonymous with ambition, his devotion with perseverance, and his sacrifice with self-interest.

“Over the years, tens of thousands of people have come to visit the cathedral. They all want to see Justo – to touch him, to hear him speak, to understand him, his inspiration, his genius and his imagination. I saw old ladies kiss him, pilgrims accost him and fanatics pitch him with all manner of schemes for the future of the cathedral.

“People often talked about him in saintly terms. They marveled that, during almost 60 years of construction, he had suffered no significant injury. Carlos Luis Martin, an architect who helped Justo at the cathedral, recalled witnessing an accident: ‘I was working in the crypt. Justo tripped over a stone and fell and smashed his head on the ground hard … “God has healed me, and now all is fine,” he said. And there was not a scratch on him.’ ”

Read the article at the Guardian, here. No firewall. Justo Gallego Martínez died on 28 November 2021.

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Photo: Bertramz
When you look at the remains of Qalb Lozeh church in Syria, you can see the inspiration behind Notre-Dame.

As many of us have been learning in recent years, much that is beloved in Western architecture was originally inspired by buildings in the Middle East. Moreover, there are Christian cathedral styles that mirror Muslim mosques.

A new book aims to set the record straight. Oliver Wainwright reviewed it at the Guardian.

“As Notre-Dame cathedral was engulfed by flames last year, thousands bewailed the loss of this great beacon of western civilisation. The ultimate symbol of French cultural identity, the very heart of the nation, was going up in smoke. But Middle East expert Diana Darke was having different thoughts. She knew that the origins of this majestic gothic pile lay not in the pure annals of European Christian history, as many have always assumed, but in the mountainous deserts of Syria, in a village just west of Aleppo to be precise.

‘Notre-Dame’s architectural design, like all gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria’s Qalb Lozeh fifth-century church,’ Darke tweeted on the morning of 16 April, as the dust was still settling in Paris. …

“It is not only the twin towers and rose window that have their origins in the Middle East, she pointed out, but also the ribbed vaults, pointed arches and even the recipe for stained glass windows.

“Gothic architecture as we know it owes much more to Arab and Islamic heritage than it does to the rampaging Goths. ‘I was astonished at the reaction,’ says Darke. ‘I thought more people knew, but there seems to be this great gulf of ignorance about the history of cultural appropriation.’ …

“With Stealing from the Saracens, an exhilarating, meticulously researched book, [she] sheds light on centuries of borrowing, tracing the roots of Europe’s major buildings – from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey to Chartres cathedral and St Mark’s basilica in Venice – back to their Middle Eastern precedents. …

“ ‘Now we have this notion of east and west,’ says Darke. ‘But back then, it wasn’t like that. There were huge cultural exchanges — and most came from the east to the west. Very little went the other way.’

“Given their prevalence in the great cathedrals of Europe, it is easy to imagine that pointed stone arches and soaring ribbed vaults are Christian in origin. But the former dates back to a seventh-century Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, while the latter began in a 10th-century mosque in Andalucia, Spain.

“In fact, that first known example of ribbed vaulting is still standing. Visitors to the Cordoba Mezquita can marvel at its multiple arches intersecting in a masterpiece of practical geometry and decorative structure, never needing a repair in its thousand-year existence. …

“The pointed arch, meanwhile, was a pragmatic solution to a problem encountered by masons working on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. One of the holiest sites in the Muslim world, it was built in 691 by the ruler of Islam’s first empire.

“The challenge was how to line up an outer arcade of rounded arches with a smaller inner arcade, while maintaining a horizontal ceiling between them. For the openings to align, the masons had to give the inner arcade tighter arches, forcing them to become pointed. Another world first can be spotted higher up in the shrine, where encircling the dome is an arcade of trefoil arches, the three-lobed style of arch that went on to encrust practically every European cathedral. …

“[Misidentification of] the Dome of the Rock was down to the Crusaders of the Middle Ages mistakenly thinking the building was the Temple of Solomon. They used the domed, circular layout of this [shrine] as the model for their Templar churches (like the City of London’s round Temple church), even copying the decorative Arabic inscription, which openly chastises Christians for believing in the Trinity rather than in the oneness of God. Their pseudo-Kufic calligraphic patterns went on to adorn French cathedral stonework and the borders of richly woven textiles, with no one aware of what they actually meant.” More at the Guardian.

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Photo: Shutterstock
The original clock at the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris was destroyed by a conflagration in April.

What is lost can often be found — or a decent replica created. That is the message of a recent story about the clock destroyed by the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. After I read it, I felt curious about the clock expert who realized that a different church had an almost identical clock in storage. So I looked him up. Such discoveries are not ordinarily stumbled on by people with no expertise.

The Catholic News Agency, in an item widely shared last June, reported, “A clock nearly identical to the one destroyed in the fire at Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris has been found in storage. The duplicate was found at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris, in what is being called a ‘miraculous discovery.’ …

“The original clock was located near the cathedral spire, which collapsed during the April 15 fire. It was feared there would be no way to rebuild the clock, as there were no surviving drawings of its mechanism or any digital records of how the clock was made.

“The timepiece’s near-twin was found by clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Viot, during a storage inventory at Holy Trinity. Viot called the find ‘incredible.’ …

“The Church of the Holy Trinity’s original clock was replaced by an electronic model about 50 years ago. The old clock was then put in storage, and was discovered behind a wooden board amid statues and furniture in a small storage room.”

Said Olivier Chandez, who was responsible for maintaining the clock at Notre-Dame, ” ‘If we only had the photos, we would have had to extrapolate. … But with this model, we have all the dimensions.’

“While the clocks are very similar, Chandez said that there are enough differences to prevent restorers from simply inserting Holy Trinity’s clock into the refurbished Notre-Dame.”

Here is some of the information I found on the shard-eyed Jean-Baptiste Viot [J-B Viot].

Born in 1967, he “began his training in watch repair at the Public Watch Making School of Paris in September 1983. After graduating, he went to Switzerland to continue his studies at the Technical School of the Vallée de Joux. … The federal certificate he obtained in June 1988 enabled him to pursue his training with the International Museum of Watchmaking of Chaux de Fonds … resulting, after two further years of study, in a degree in watch restoration. …

“In June 1998, J-B VIOT was hired by Breguet 7 place Vendôme, giving him the chance to return to watch restoration in Paris. Indeed, working on original Breguet movements from the historical period 1775-1840 gave him the opportunity to study this great master from the past. …

“Following the purchase of the firm by the biggest Swiss watchmaking group (Groupe Swatch), J-B decided to devote himself entirely to the restoration of antique watches and clocks.” More here.

I like to imagine how Viot felt when he saw what Trinity had at a time that all Paris was mourning the cathedral.

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Photo: Sergey Kelin/istock, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Casts of the original Gates of Paradise are installed on the outside of the Baptistery in Florence. Perfect copies are now at a Kansas City museum.

Victoria Stapley-Brown, at the Art Newspaper, has a nice story about Florence’s famous Gates of Paradise and how a replica landed in Kansas City.

“The original gilded doors were made for the east entrance of the baptistery in front of Florence Cathedral by Ghiberti and his workshop from 1425 to 1452. They depict scenes from the Old Testament and their startling virtuoso relief — figures are placed in landscapes or perspectivally rendered architecture to suggest depth — influenced generations of artists.

When Michelangelo saw them, he said: ‘They are truly worthy to be the Gates of Paradise.’

“Now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, is installing a bronze copy of the famous doors in its entrance hall. …

“In 2015, when the Nelson-Atkins trustee Paul DeBruce and his wife, Linda Woodsmall-DeBruce, were visiting Florence, [they went to] the Marinelli Foundry for the Frilli Gallery.

“The DeBruces discovered that when a copy of the gates was cast at the foundry in 1990 to replace the original doors on the baptistery … another bronze version was made for the Japanese collector Chochiro Motoyama, an importer of Italian luxury goods, who funded the restoration of the original doors and the casting of a replacement.

“The second copy of the doors, which belonged to Motoyama, had been left in storage ever since, apart from appearing in an exhibition in India and South Korea (2013-16).

“The DeBruces bought the copy from the Japanese collector. They transported the gates to New York by ship, then on to Kansas City by train and truck. The 17ft-high doors, which weigh four-and-a-half tonnes, have been hung on the walls of the lobby of the museum’s Bloch Building. …

“The scenes depicted, including the Creation of Adam and Eve, fill ten square panels. To create the illusion of depth and movement, ‘the relief is shallow at the bottom and deeper at the top,’ the museum’s senior curator of European arts, Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, explains in a statement.”

According to the museum’s director, Julián Zugazagoitia, the replica creates a “ ‘nice dialogue and tension’ with a contemporary work in the lobby, a tapestry made from recycled bottle tops by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.” More.

Don’t you love Art Speak? For artists and museums, the word “tension” is positive. Bless their hearts.

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This batch is all Rhode Island. First I have a couple pictures from the mall. If you don’t call the mall Providence Place, people aren’t sure if you mean the Arcade. I’m having a hard time keeping track of the local names. You have the Rhode Island Convention Center, which is not the same as the Civic Center (is that the Dunkin Donuts Center?), which is totally not the same as the same as P-PAC (Providence Performing Arts Center), which is not the same as the Veterans Memorial Auditorium …

Back to the photos. Lady Godiva hangs out in Providence Place, as does PF Chang restaurant’s fine-looking Tian horse. Next, I’m posting a glimpse of  some old brick buildings that were merged and renovated to house my new workplace. I love the view out this conference room window.

The archway is from a different renovated building, the historic Heating & Cowling Mill, which has beautifully repurposed to house formerly homeless veterans.

Several homeless people were watching me from the steps of the cathedral early one morning like wary deer. I took an unobtrusive picture around the corner, where the sun was warming a quiet nook.

The Modern Diner is in Pawtucket and serves breakfast all day, but not breakfast only. It was recently featured on the Food Network show and made a list of top diners in New England. Check out the Providence Journal report.

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Dirk-Jan Visser for The New York Times

I’m a sucker for any story about an angel because it gives me a chance to mention that Suzanne’s birthstone-jewelry company, Luna & Stella, has a lovely angel charm.

That is why I zeroed in on this article.

John Tagliabue writes in today’s NY Times, “The statue of an angel outside St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in ‘s Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, holds a cellphone, which has two numbers.

“That is because, shortly after the statue was unveiled last April, a local couple, the parents of two children, set up a number so people could call the angel. Business cards soon appeared in pubs, restaurants and hotels with a picture of the angel and the number. So successful was the line that the couple opened a Twitter account, @ut_engelke, managed by the husband, which now has about 2,700 followers.”

Then the church, not amused by @ut_engelke, set up its own number. It charges for calls, and people get to hear recorded messages about the church.

The woman who answers the original phone number doesn’t charge. She answers with “Hello, this is the Little Angel,” and she just sees where it leads.

“ ‘In most cases there is laughter, but there are callers who have no faith in friends or relatives, so they would like to talk to someone they have some kind of faith in,’ she said. A widow in her 80s called from Amsterdam to complain of loneliness …

“ ‘She said she’d lost faith in humanity, in her own family,’ said the woman who lends the angel a voice. Two weeks later the elderly woman called again, to thank the angel. Things had gotten better.” Read more.

I would be interested in your angel stories.

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