San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain – January 4, 2012
We visited the basilica at the Monasterio Benedictine de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos. Today’s visit was the third or fourth time I have tried to visit the site. Each of the previous times I found the place closed for one reason or another.
There was no entry fee. From the gate to the parking lot is about six kilometers (3.7 miles). We parked right at the stairs to the vast plaza that is in front of the basilica. As soon as we got out of the car, the 150-meter (490-foot) cross dominated our view. It is enormous. It is easily visible from many areas around Madrid. I remember seeing the cross from the mountain pass we drove on during our first trip to Segovia in December 2009.
A 490-foot tall cross as seen through the trees.General Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, commissioned the construction of the basilica in 1940. It took 18 years to complete the structure. The structure on the exterior of the mountain is massive, almost unbelievably so. It is every bit as large within the mountain at whose base it sits. The basilica extends 250-meters (820-feet) into the mountainside. That is nearly one-seventh of a mile!
The scale within the basilica is every bit as enormous as the exterior façade. Upon entering the basilica, one is in a large anteroom to pass bags, etc. through a scanner and walk through a metal detector. After passing through the antechamber, one descends several stairs to a room just in front of a set of massive metal gates. In this room, on either side, are two gigantic statues of Michael the Archangel. I estimate each figure is 20 or 25 feet (6 or 7.6 meters) tall. On the gates are statues of saints. There are 20 saints on each side, for a total of 40. Each sculpture is probably one-meter (3.2-feet) tall. Below each statue is an immense holy water font in the shape of a shell.
After passing through the gates, one again descends several stairs into a great hall. The great hall appears to be about 150-feet (45.7-meters) long. The vaulted ceiling is probably 50 or 60 feet (15.2 or 18.3 meters) above the floor. On display in the great hall are eight enormous tapestries, four on each side. On either side of each fabric is a cross and pipes for an organ. In between each tapestry on display is a niche (for a total of six) which serves as chapels. Following is a list of what each tapestry depicts:
- The Beginning of the Revelations to St. John on Patmos
- The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
- Michael defeats the Devil
- The Nuptials of the Lamb
- The Angel Defeats the Dragon
- The Triumph of the Gospel
- John Commissioned to Measure the Temple
- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Above each of the chapels (niches) are colossal statues of various depictions of the Virgin Mary. In the list below, the number of each chapel corresponds with the placement between the tapestries. In other words, chapel 1 is in between tapestry 1 and tapestry 2. Following is a list of the names of the chapels:
- Chapel of the Immaculate
- Chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
- Chapel of Our Lady of Loretto
- Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar
- Chapel of Our Lady of Mercy
- Chapel of Our Lady of Africa
At the opposite end of the great hall, signs stopped visitors at the stairs that lead up to the pews. The entire time we were in the basilica, we could hear a priest chanting. It was beautiful and comforting. As I looked down the central aisle, I could see the altar. Above the altar was an enormous crucifix, under the dome. I counted eight priests at the altar. I could tell they were at that point in the mass when they consecrate the host. Suddenly, virtually all the lights went out. The exceptions were some of the small sconces on the walls, and some spotlights focused on the crucifix and altar. I could also see smoke from the thurible rising behind the cross. It was amazing to be there for that moment. The lights were off for about a minute.
Before exiting the Basilica, I read a little about the massive cross on top of the mountain. At the base of the cross are sculptures of the four Evangelists. Below them are statues of the four cardinal virtues.
When we got back in the car, we set the GPS for Manzanares el Real.
If one is interested, more information about the basilica is at this link, Basilica del Valle de los Caidos.