The cathedral that failed

Biniamar is a small village of three hundred people at the eastern foot of the Sierra Tramuntana in Mallorca. Its name, like that of many other places in Mallorca beginning with Bini, comes from the fact that during the Muslim kingdom of Mallorca (902-1229), an Arab or Berber tribe lived here, who considered themselves the sons (bani) of a common ancestor, in the case of Biniamar, the sons of Amar (bani Amar). In the centuries following the Catalan conquest, Amar’s sons became Catalan peasants and good Catholics. Their medieval church was dedicated to Saint Thecla, disciple of Saint Paul and an early patron of female autonomy, whose veneration was widespread among the Catalan conquerors. The cathedral of Tarragona in Catalonia is also dedicated to her, where she is celebrated in every September with a spectacular ten-day (!) procession.

In Biniamar, however, the most famous shrine is not the church of Saint Thecla, but the one called Església Nova, the New Church. However, this building is not marked as a church on the map, and although the commemorative plaque bolted to its façade in 2010 celebrates its centenary, it was never actually consecrated. You can only see why on site: because it has no roof, and never had. The ribs that start as cross vaults from the consoles above the Gothic arches of the side aisles stop immediately after starting, and the building is open to the sky. That is why the church is also called the Unfinished Cathedral.

It is not uncommon for Gothic cathedrals to be left unfinished, such as the Dom in Cologne, which, as they say, “if will be finished, the world will end”. Or the Duomo in Siena with its large, empty main nave, or Beauvais Cathedral, where the five-hundred-year-old scaffolding itself is already considered a monument. This, however, had a reason as serious as the building itself: war, black death, earthquake. As comical as it was to build a Gothic cathedral in Biniamar, just as banal and farcical was the reason for its failure.

The village’s three hundred inhabitants would never have thought of building such a large church, if it had not happened that Antonio Maura (1853-1925), a six-time prime minister of pre-Franco Spain, born in Palma de Mallorca, spent his childhood summers with his uncle who lived here.

Antonio Maura. A portrait by photographer Kâulak (Antonio Cánovas del Castillo y Vallejo) on the double page of the May 5, 1917 issue of the magazine La Esfera

Already from the end of the 19th century, Maura clearly saw the structural problems of the Spanish state and the disasters to which they could lead (and did lead indeed). During his six governments, he consistently tried to change them with the reforms of his “revolution from above” and by breaking “caciquismo”, the power of rural landowner politicians (godfathers, oligarchs, or “NER knights”, as we would call them in Hungary, the beneficiaries of the System of National Cooperation). In contrast, as we will soon see, he was the first governor in 20th-century Spain who had to crush by force a revolution from below,and the first politician who, as a successful native of Mallorca, was surrounded in the island by a personal cult worthy of a “cacique”. The Art Nouveau monument erected by the city of Palma de Mallorca with the sculptor Mariano Benlliure in 1929 on the Plaça del Mercat is a witness to this.

Another witness is the “cathedral” of Biniamar, which could come to life only due to the fact that Maura wanted to set up a memorial commensurate with his own perceived importance in the scene of his childhood. During his second prime ministership (1907-1909), the great returner of Spanish politics “found” 100,000 pesetas for the new church of Biniamar. The foundation stone was laid on September 25, 1910, two days after the feast of St. Thecla, and the amount was enough to raise the walls up to the beginning of the vault. At that time, however, it was already apparent that there would be problems with the continuation.

The so-called second Rif War that broke out around the Spanish enclave city of Melilla in Morocco, did not turn well for Spain, and Maura was forced to call up reserves. The conscript could be redeemed for 1,500 pesetas, which was a worker’s salary for one year. In this way, the rich got away, but the poor, many of whom were sole breadwinners, were dragged into a war that, in the eyes of the Spanish people, served only the interests of the rich mine owners around Melilla. Demonstrations and later uprisings broke out against the conscription, primarily in Barcelona, which was already an important center of Anarchism, which played a significant role in the later civil war. During the “Tragic Week” at the end of July, the government put down the rebellion with guns. More than a hundred people died. Five organizers of the uprising, including its leader Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, organizer of the “Free Schools” in Barcelona, were sentenced to death. The sentence and the execution were accompanied by a huge European protest, and as a result, King Alfons XIII replaced Maura as prime minister.

Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia (1859-1909) free thinker, anarchist, educator

The burning Barcelona on July 28, 1909, about which Antonio Ribas made the film La ciutat cremada (The city burnt) in 1976

And everything happened as usual. The projects of public interest continued under the next prime minister, Segismundo Moret: the Berber fighters of the Rif Mountains were pushed back from the land they were fighting for, expropriated by the mining companies. But the private projects stopped immediately. The promised next 100,000 pesetas did not arrive in Biniamar. The arcs started, but they did not continue. The church was left without a roof.

And everything went on as usual with projects that only serve the pleasure and prestige of a powerful patron, but the local community does not really need them. The stadiums are overrun by weeds, the family estate built on the site of destroyed monuments becomes a sheepfold, drug addicts shoot themselves up under the torn ceilings of palaces of culture. * As Isaiah dramatizes it:

“Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds. She will become a haunt for jackals, a home for owls. Desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and wild goats will bleat to each other. There the lilith will also lie down and find for themselves places of rest. The owl will nest there and lay eggs, she will hatch them and care for her young under the shadow of her wings. There also the falcons will gather, each with its mate.”

In Biniamar, the large space surrounded by four walls was turned into a sports field and a community space, because that was all what the local community needed. By peeking through the main gate, you can see the soccer goal pushed aside, and through the south gate, the basketball blackboard in the transept as well as the stacked plastic chairs of the open-air cinema.

And today, on the evening of Saint Anthony, when every village on the island prepares for the holy theater of the temptation of the old hermit and the subsequent community pig roasting, you can already see the huge log of the community bonfire in front of the church, as well as the glowing “Happy Holidays!” inscription above the gate.

It’s dusk. The sun is setting blood red over the surrounding houses. Dezső must die today. *

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