SPAIN. The Sagrada Família – Gaudi’s masterpiece

NOTHING PREPARED ME for the Sagrada Família. This famous church in the suburbs of Barcelona is the supreme achievement of the famous architect Antoni Gaudi.

La Basílica de la Sagrada Família has become famous for its fantastical appearance. People come from all over the world just to see it. I was in Barcelona for the annual Mobile World Conference, which has become one of the world’s biggest technology events, but that was really just an excuse to visit this wonderful city.

I jumped a Metro train from my little pensione in the Gothic Quarter up to the Sagrada Família station, only a mile or so north of the city. I had heard that the lines to get into the basilica were very long, but it was mid-afternoon mid week and there weren’t too many people around. I bought a ticket for €15 and walked straight in.

The exterior is remarkable enough. We have all seen plenty of pictures of it. But what really impressed me was the interior. I expected it to be a normal sort of church inside, but it is anything but. It took my breath away. Quite literally—it had a physical effect on me. The interior of the Sagrada Família is one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.

The architecture inside is as strange and as beautiful as the exterior but what struck me the most was the colors. The afternoon sun streaming in through the enormous stained-glass windows gave the whole place an ethereal glow. Then I started to notice the columns and the remarkable ceiling. The vaulting pillars are vaguely reminiscent of the skeleton of a giant creature, and you’re inside it. It is like a dream. It defies description.

The only other place that has ever had this effect on me was the Taj Mahal, which is similar in that the pictures of it just do not prepare you for the beauty of the place. I walked around stunned for 20 minutes or so. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Gaudi certainly did. He marveled in the spirit of the omnipotent being. Many people believe in the idea of a creator, and most religions build temples to their God—or gods—as a way of demonstrating that belief. Christians do this particularly well, and some of the most famous and the most visited sights in Europe are churches and cathedrals.

Amazingly, the Sagrada Família is still under construction. It will not be finished for another ten years or more. There are still many spires to be built, including the giant central unit that will tower above all the others, surmounted by a giant cross. This central spire, dedicated to Jesus Christ, will climb to 560 feet and will make the building the tallest religious structure on earth.

Building for the ages

It is not immediately apparent that the place is still being built, because the whole place is so odd that it looks neither finished nor unfinished. Construction started in 1882, with Gaudi taking over as architect the following year and completely revising its design to his own conception.

When he died in 1926 it was still very much a work in progress. Work halted during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s  and the whole structure was nearly destroyed by the Republicans, who had a strong anticlerical bent. Barcelona—indeed all of Catalonia—was a Republican, anarchist and atheistic stronghold. They also destroyed the building’s plans, which were painstakingly reconstructed.

Work didn’t start again until the 1950s. It is funded entirely by private donations, hence the steep admission fees. Gaudi himself said that he was in no hurry because his client—the all seeing, all powerful deity—had plenty of time. There has been some discussion on whether it remains true to Gaudi’s original design, but the consensus is that it does.

The Sagrada Família remains controversial to many conservative Catholics for its lack of orthodoxy and the fact that it competes against existing religious structures including Barcelona’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which dates way back to the 14th century and is itself a very imposing piece of work.

The completed Sagrada Família will have three impressive façades, one each devoted to the Nativity, the Passion of Christ, and the Glory, or road to God – death and final judgement and that sort of thing. Many people actually believe in all this stuff.

Buildings Gaudi designed are dotted all over Barcelona. He was the greatest exponent of an architectural movement known as Modernism, but he transcended that genre with an idiosyncratic style that incorporated elements other artistic movements such as neo-Gothic and Orientalism. The Sagrada Família itself defies categorisation or even description.

Homage to Catalonia

Gaudi was also proudly Catalan. The Catalonian region, centred on Barcelona, has its own language and cultural identity. There is a strong separatist movement. Gaudi lived in Barcelona his whole life and left an indelible imprint on the city. Other important buildings he designed include the Casa Vicens (a striking Art Nouveau private house that is now a museum)., the Episcopal Palace in Astorga, Casa Mila (a futuristic apartment building) and the remarkable Casa Batlló in central Barcelona. Seven Gaudi buildings in Barcelona have been collectively designated a World Heritage property.

Barcelona is today one of the world’s most visited cities. There are so many tourists, especially in summer, that the locals are complaining. There are many reasons to visit Catalonia’s capital. It has a wonderful climate and is a true world city with grand buildings, an attractive hinterland and wonderful food and drink. They also have a great football team.

But many people go to Barcelona just to see Gaudi’s creations. It is worth the trip.

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