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 Sevilles 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 wouldnt 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 cathedrals 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 booksellers
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
buildings 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 cathedrals 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 Gods creation. All
of his designs are taken from nature and where possible he avoided straight
lines. Even the cathedrals 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 Gaudis
unique design features thereby reassuring all those whose enthusiasm is
vital to seeing the project through to completion. So, no, its 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
Cathedrals 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 Barcelonas 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 dont think it does; after all, several hundred years is not outside
the norm for completing many of Europes 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 IgnatiusInsight.com Articles
by Stephen Sparrow:
Path to Rome | Stephen Sparrow
of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense | Stephen Sparrow
Hours in Lourdes | Stephen Sparrow
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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