Building the monument

On the afternoon of 1 April 1940, after a second victory parade through the streets of Madrid and a gala luncheon at the Royal Palace, Franco travelled to Cuelgamuros with his wife, senior government and military figures, authorities of the Movimiento Nacional, heads of the Sección Femenina (the women’s branch of the Falange), and the ambassadors of Germany, Italy and Portugal. At the Risco de la Nava base, Colonel Valentín Galarza, Secretary to the Head of State, read the decree aloud and the first blast was set off. Thus a construction process of almost nineteen years was set in motion, mobilizing vast resources in a postwar context of widespread poverty and misery.

The first architect to take charge of the project was Pedro Muguruza, Director General of Architecture, who produced the early drafts and designs for the monument’s crypt. July 1941 saw the creation of the Consejo de las Obras del Monumento Nacional a los Caídos – the Board of Works of the National Monument to the Fallen – over which Interior Minister Valentín Galarza presided. Its mission was to “implement the projects approved in the shortest possible timeframe, providing solutions to those problems as may arise in the course of the execution of the work”.

The execution of that work was awarded by tender in three substantial contracts: drilling of the crypt would be carried out by the company San Román; the monastery and adjacent buildings were entrusted to the firm Molán; and the approach road was built by Banús. Each of these companies set up and managed a specific detachment made up of both free workers and prisoners. The scope of the work and slow rate of progress led the regime to introduce sentence reductions in return for labour in a scheme devised by Jesuit José Agustín Pérez del Pulgar.

In January 1942, a company from the 95th battalion of imprisoned soldiers was brought to the Valley, and thousands of political prisoners worked there between 1943 and 1950. The use of political prisoners for the building work, the economic gains for the contractors and the number of work-related accidents or health disorders associated with the precarious working conditions are some of the most controversial aspects of constructing the monument to have been highlighted in recent decades. In 2021, an archaeological dig at the penal detachment, especially at the Banús site, shed light on the living conditions of both free workers, prisoners and their families who lived in shacks around the detachments after 1947.

In 1950, architect Diego Méndez replaced Pedro Muguruza as director of the building work which led to significant changes in scale and planning. The sculptural work on the exterior – including the Pietà above the entrance, the four evangelists and the four cardinal virtues at the base of the cross – is by Juan de Ávalos, as are the four archangels in the transept of the basilica. The 150-metre Christian cross crowning the Valley was designed by Diego Méndez.

Although religious symbolism predominates, the iconographic programme of the complex is markedly militaristic, as shown by the archangel guards in the atrium, armed with swords; the six side chapels are dedicated to the patrons of the armed forces and military or imperial feats; both sides of the final section of the nave feature allegories of the armed forces, and battle scenes can be found in the lower right section of the dome, with a tank, combatants and the flags of the winning factions.

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