The beauty of La Sagrada Familia


THERE is nothing that can quite prepare you for the first look at architect Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, the La Sagrada Família Temple, the Church of the Sacred family, in the Spanish city of Barcelona.

It made a stunning impact on me. After leaving the precincts of one of Barcelona’s newest architectural marvels, the ultra-modern high-rise Hesperia Hotel with its bathrooms of black marble and mirrors and revolving rooftop restaurant, I joined the tourists on a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of Barcelona, which costs about $28 for  a 24-hour pass, to see the more historical side of the city.

It stopped along the way for the passengers to have a close look at Gaudi’s remarkable architectural style in several parts of the city. So I was familiar with the weird and wonderful curves and angles of his designs.

In fact when the bus stopped at the site I was in two minds whether to get off or not to see another church, but one glimpse of the soaring spires was enough. I was off the bus in a flash, dazzled by the immense, complicated building in front of me.

It looked like something from an alien landscape, with twisted spires, colourful ceramics and sharply angled modern sculptures of the Holy Family, Christ and his Disciples.

It is simply staggering in its enormity and complexity, and the design makes no sense until you get to understand the mind-set behind the design.

The church, which has always been  defined as an expiatory church, one built entirely from public subscription, has been under construction since 1826, with an eventual completion date set for 2026.

Antoni Gaudi designed the church, and worked on it for 40 years before he died in 1926 after being hit by a tram in the city.

The eight huge bell towers are already constructed, but the church will eventually have 18 towers: 12 for the Apostles; four for the Evangelists; one for the Virgin Mary; and one for Jesus Christ.

On top of the four Evangelists’ towers will be their symbols: bull for St Luke; winged man for St Matthew; eagle for St John; and lion for St Mark. The top of the tower for Jesus Christ will be a giant cross.

Gaudi based all his architecture on nature and once this is explained, the whole building, unfinished as it is, takes on a completely new appearance. You can see the columns inside the church as the tree, with branches growing out to support the vaulted roof with its ceilings of stylised flowers, leaves and blossoms.

It is a revelation in itself to understand the construction. To walk round the structure on the outside is to realise that here indeed is a Church building to eventually join Notre Dame and the Sacre Coeur in the list of the great buildings dedicated to the faith.

Each side has a different facade and is covered with monumental art that shows the breadth of Gaudi’s vision and imagination.

And all this mixed with huge cranes and workmen scurrying about at the top and the bottom of the building.

There was a winding queue waiting to pay eight Euros to get inside the church, all of which goes to the continuing construction costs, for the church is one of the great drawcards to visitors to the city. Indeed over the years, the figure of Gaudí has become very famous and is highly appreciated today.

His work has become one of the main cultural attractions of the city, and is a legacy that has gained UNESCO World Heritage listing.

It was on June 7, 1926, at the junction of Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and Carrerde Bailčn, Gaudí was knocked down by a tram. He was seriously injured and taken to the Hospital de la Santa Creu, where he died three days later.

The building of La Sagrada Família has continued ever since by his associate architects and artists all of them following Gaudí’s original idea.

Inside, even amid the dust and noise of the stone cutters the lifts and scaffolds, the glory of the concept is evident. The ionic columns soar skyward, with subtle changes, the fluted sandstone nave columns narrow toward the top to give the impression of the narrowing of a tree trunk and ceilings that are already masterpieces. And the spiral staircase that leads to the towers is a work of art in itself.

Christian symbology is evident in the church, which tells the life of Jesus and the history of the faith.

The church has been built over the years according to Gaudí’s original concept, which expresses the Catholic faith in the architecture: Jesus and the faithful, represented by Mary, the apostles and the saints.

The bell towers, on the three facades, which represent the human life of Jesus (from birth to death), and in the interior, which suggests the celestial Jerusalem, where a set of columns, dedicated to Christian cities and continents, represent the apostles.

Amid all the activity, and finished and unfinished glory, the church is used as a place for worship. Mass is celebrated usually in the crypt, which also houses the Gaudi Museum, but while I was there the crypt was undergoing some restoration work and the services were being held actually in the church itself in a space that is opened only at Mass time.

Gaudi’s body was buried on June 12, 1926, in the Carmen chapel in the crypt and his tomb is popular with visitors who want to pay homage to the master architect.

The enormity of the task of the dedicated people working to complete the building is obvious, but there is no doubt that it will be finished and shown in its full glory.

ERIC SCOTT December 18, 2009.

(This article first appeared in the Catholic Leader Newspaper