Gaudi's Grand Cathedral: Temple Sagrada Familia and Its Saintly Architect | Stephen Sparrow | February 13, 2006

Gaudi's Grand Cathedral: Temple Sagrada Familia and Its Saintly Architect | Stephen Sparrow | February 13, 2006

During a trip to Europe in August and September of 2004, I visited some well-known cathedrals, including Chartres near Paris, St Peters in Rome, and Seville’s spectacular gothic church. I saw many other beautiful things as well, but, if I could have one wish to return for one day only to just one of the places I visited, it wouldn’t be to revisit any antique cathedral or art gallery. No, I would ask to go straight back to the bustling city of Barcelona to see the architecture of Antoni Gaudi and especially his pet project, the Temple Sagrada Familia (the Cathedral of the Holy Family).

Construction of the Cathedral has been on the go since 1887 and although the original concept looks to be about 80% complete, some locals reckon it may be another eighty years before the work will be finished. So far, of the cathedral’s twenty-eight planned towers, most of the larger ones are now in place and cranes mark the progress of others still in the process of sprouting. However, even in its unfinished state, the building is a mind-boggling structure of amazing beauty and harmony. The site already attracts two million visitors a year who each pay eight Euros to walk through those parts open to the public; for an extra ten they can view the city from the top of the 112 metre belltower. The largest dome still to be erected is planned to be 178 metres tall to the top of its cross.

The Temple Sagrada Familia started life with a Barcelona bookseller’s dream to see a new cathedral built and dedicated to The Holy Family. Being a persistent man, he eventually gained support for his idea from the local Archbishop and land for the project was duly acquired. In 1882 a ceremony was held to bless the site and lay the corner stone. The first architect stayed around only long enough to produce a floor plan before moving on. Then along came Antoni Gaudi; a flamboyant young man with a string of successful design commissions behind him. It was said that during his student days he hardly ever attended lectures. But the building committee had confidence in him and an inspired decision saw Gaudi handed the design brief for the Sagrada – the rest is history.

Like many Gaudi designs the Temple Sagrada has a funky feel to it. From a distance, its towers in their tight cluster bring to mind a patch of tall foxgloves in full flower. But then the closer you get, the more the building’s design integrity becomes apparent, until quite suddenly you find yourself confronted with the carved stone facades and your breath is literally whipped away.

Portrayed are the important aspects in the life of Christ with a series of modern larger-than-life-sized stone sculptures. In the case of the west facade, which features the Passion and death of Christ, the stark beauty of the sculptures is combined with an astonishing grim realism. Easily discerned are the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter as well as the arraignment of Jesus before Pilate, the scourging at the pillar, the carrying of the cross, and the crucifixion. Another facade is given over to depictions of scenes from the Nativity of Christ. And then there are the various portals dedicated to facets of Catholic worship such as the one to Our Lady of The Rosary and, always, the subject is illumined using figures sculpted in stone.

If the visitor is astonished at the cathedral’s exterior, wait until he steps inside when his sense of awe and wonder immediately cranks up by several magnitudes. The interior is like being in some ethereal forest where slender cream and polished granite clad columns soar what seems endlessly upward to branch like trees and support a forest canopy of giant downward facing stars or flowers. And the streaming light and modern windows, some plain glass and some stained complete the scene notwithstanding that a few metres away scaffolds surround partly formed steel reinforced concrete columns and workmen beaver away making formers for the plaster ceiling shapes while others grind the edges of the curved granite panels used in cladding the columns. And the visitor continues to wander around, his gaze continually drawn to those gorgeous fluted columns following them up to that amazing vaulted ceiling and realizing all the time the total inadequacy of words to describe the vision being experienced. Trying to capture it on film is well nigh impossible.

Gaudi wanted to stimulate a sense of wonder in God’s creation. All of his designs are taken from nature and where possible he avoided straight lines. Even the cathedral’s interior support columns are modeled on palm trees. Flower shapes are incorporated into the crosses surmounting the numerous towers and carved animals such as tortoises and salamanders liven up otherwise bare stonework. Not present are the stolid sturdy flying buttresses that seem necessary to support the massive ancient cathedrals of France and at times I found myself wondering about the strength of the Sagrada. Such an immense structure designed to seat fifteen thousand people supported by what looks distinctly fragile. But I read later that engineers using computer-generated models have demonstrated the strength of Gaudi’s unique design features thereby reassuring all those whose enthusiasm is vital to seeing the project through to completion. So, no, it’s not about to fall down.

For the devoutly Catholic Antoni Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia was intended as a church of the people, a song to the Triune God, and a symbol of the Church as the body of Christ, as well as the sanctity of purpose inside family life. Genius that Gaudi undoubtedly was, as a young man he was not easy to get along with. He was vain and conceited, but after having marriage proposals to two society women rejected, his demeanor underwent a change. At the age of thirty-one he dropped his extravagant life style and adopted instead a life of austerity and prayer. Gaudi remained single all his life, and upon gaining the Sagrada brief his public life became focused on the Cathedral’s continuing design and construction.

Privately, Gaudi was a man of considerable charity and he never hesitated in helping those less fortunate than himself. He took into his home his father and an orphaned niece and cared for them until their deaths. They were his last two surviving relatives. Gaudi himself died in 1926, at the age of 74, after being struck by a tram while hurrying to evening prayer. His saintly life is now being examined with a view to establishing a cause for his eventual canonization.

Today, cash receipts from tourist visitors and public donations mean the Sagrada project is self-supporting, which explains why the citizens of Barcelona have such a phlegmatic attitude toward the length of time the Cathedral is taking to build. But it was not always that way and in the early stage of construction (1909), dissatisfaction among Barcelona’s poor coupled with perceptions of Church wealth exploded into rioting, and many religious buildings in the city were attacked and destroyed. However, the name Antoni Gaudi carried sufficient respect to ensure that the Sagrada was free from the attention of rampaging mobs. Perhaps in the light of those upheavals, we can see the Sagrada Familia – in addition to its dedicatory name – standing as a symbol of the institution of the family: under attack by unholy things and yet still surviving basically intact. Maybe the building will never be finished but will stand instead as a symbol of our own lives, our own spiritual journeys; works in progress, largely unfinished until such time as life ends when at last our spiritual houses will be judged complete: one way or another.

The Temple Sagrada Familia, even in its incomplete state, has to fall into the category of being one of the man-made wonders of the world. So, does it really matter if in another two hundred years it still remains unfinished? I don’t think it does; after all, several hundred years is not outside the norm for completing many of Europe’s most famous cathedrals and whenever Antoni Gaudi was asked why he persisted with a project he would never live to see completed, he would invariably reply, "My Master is in no hurry."

• Visit the official site of the Temple Sagrada Familia

Other Articles by Stephen Sparrow:

Eugenio Zolli’s Path to Rome | Stephen Sparrow
St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense | Stephen Sparrow
Forty-Four Hours in Lourdes | Stephen Sparrow

Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Dante Alighieri and St Therese of Lisieux. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business, retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children. His other interests include fishing, hiking, photography and natural history, especially New Zealand botany and ornithology.

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