Gaudí. La Sagrada Familia.

The Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family).
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Basilica and Church of Atonement of the Holy Family)  and the Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí, are inextricably linked, although when Gaudí died tragically in 1926, only a very small portion –the eastern façade and its towers– had been built.

Sagrada Familia: begun in 1882 still under construction in 2017!

What we see now is the work of numerous architects and sculptors inspired by the reconstructed models and sketches after the destruction of Gaudí’s originals during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

The church’s construction has a long history: begun in 1882, its building is still going on (2017) and is projected to be completed by 2026, the hundredth anniversary of Gaudí’s death. In November 2010, its status was elevated to that of basilica following its consecration by Pope Benedict XVI.
After Gaudí took on the task of church design and construction in 1883, following the resignation of the original architect –Francesc de Paula del Villar– he dedicated himself increasingly to the project.

He became so obsessed with the church that after 1908 he took on no new commissions and devoted himself exclusively to this, his major work. He took to sleeping in his workshop, went begging from door to door for donations, neglected his appearance and adopted an extremely frugal and largely vegetarian diet.

Gaudí scrapped Villar’s modest neo-Gothic design, and planned a much more ambitious building overlaid with Romanticism and the modernist love of decoration. From Romanticism, Gaudí incorporated a love of nature, a search for the medieval past and a reawakening of interest in local traditions.

But for Gaudí, the medieval past also carried nationalistic connotations of a period (the 13th and 14th centuries) when Catalonia was a major player in the commercial and political life of the Mediterranean world.

Although Gaudí adopted the medieval Gothic cathedral as his template, he added structural, decorative and symbolic innovations based on his belief in the sanctity of nature as an expression of God’s omnipotence. 

Nature was God’s great creation, His “building.” And since God represented Nature in endless variety and did not “build” in straight lines, Gaudí too shunned straight vertical and horizontal lines and incorporated an abundance of natural motifs into the structure: trees, flowers, fruits, leaves, even fungi (especially mushrooms).

Tortoise supporting column.

Domestic animals abound too: (roosters, hens, cows, donkeys). There are snails, seashells, tortoises, serpents, lizards, frogs, salamanders etc.  Many accompany saints or are attached to the numerous biblical scenes or even form part of the structure (e.g. a tortoise supporting the base of a column). 

Adding to the rich variety, the pinnacles of the tapered towers are embellished by colourful mosaics and Venetian glass. Topping each tower is a finial (crowning ornament) enclosing a decorative cross.

Gaudí’s plans called for a monumental structure with eighteen spires, a nave that could accommodate several thousand congregants (6,500 attended the consecration in Nov. 2010), a choir that could hold 1,500 and choir galleries with room for seven organs.

When completed, twelve of the eighteen towers will represent the twelve apostles, (only eight have been completed thus far, 2017). Four towers will symbolise the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and one will be dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  Finally the Christ tower –substantially taller than the others- – will soar 558 feet (170 metres) above Barcelona.

To climb the two towers open to the public (above the Nativity and Passion entrances), you must take an elevator; it appears, from comments made by visitors, that it is possible to walk down although the experience can be trying owing to steepness and overcrowding. Many comments advise those suffering from vertigo or claustrophobia not to venture up.

Shaped like a traditional Latin cross, the basilica when finished will have three large facades: the Nativity facing east, the Passion looking west, and the main façade, the Glory (still incomplete), facing south.

Only the Nativity façade and its four towers were completed by Gaudí before he died. With the modern Passion façade completed between 1986 and 2005, a comparison between the two facades illustrates the difference between Gaudí’s vision and that of Josep Subirachs, sculptor of the Passion figures.

Gaudí is impossible to copy given that he changed plans as he went along and shunned detailed designs. It’s impossible to determine what the Passion front would have looked like had he lived to do it.

The Nativity façade is divided into three portals (doorways). The left represents Hope and is dedicated to St Joseph, the centre depicts Christian Love/Charity with the Holy Family and nativity scene as the focus, and the right stands for Faith and is devoted to the Virgin Mary.

Nativity Façade: main portal (doorway) detail.

What strikes us immediately is the abundance of sculpted human and animal figures (for which Gaudí was helped by his assistants) and the ornate, exuberant vegetative forms that surround and weave their way between the sculptures and cover every inch of the façade.

It can be overwhelming, like an overworked tableau that doesn’t let the eye or the mind rest. The story of Christ’s birth and the tales related to it are almost lost in the profusion. It is reminiscent of religious baroque art, meant to move us to wonder and awe, the same kind of wonder and awe that God’s greatest creation –Nature—awoke in Gaudí.

Nativity façade and towers.

There is not a straight line anywhere, in keeping with Gaudí’s observation that God did not “build” in straight lines. Endless mini stalactites or leafy canopies over the entrances, windows, or grottoes protecting sculptures, render the famous Gothic pointed arches almost unrecognisable. For the critic David Cohn the Nativity façade is a “mad profusion of sculpture and fussy surfaces … which are liquidy, lumpy and dark like a poured sandcastle” (The Architecture Review).

Nevertheless, there are many delightfully warm, human scenes. Look, for example, for the whimsical donkey and cow attending the Holy Family on the central post of the main doorway, or the crowing rooster and busy chickens to the right of the main doorway.

One interesting historical detail that visitors may be unaware of is that fifteen lighter-coloured figures above the main entrance are in fact modern, the work of a Japanese-born sculptor, Etsuro Sotoo**.

**Sotoo arrived in Barcelona in 1978 and immediately
felt drawn to the Sagrada Familia. After a trial
period, he was taken on as a stonecutter.  His passion
for the church and respect for Gaudí inspired his
conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1991. He continues
to work on the Sagrada Familia, but has also worked
widely on other projects.

The figures consist of six angels playing musical instruments and another nine singing. They replaced the original figures destroyed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Other sculptures by Sotoo include bunches of colourful fruits atop pinnacles above the three facades (arranged according to the seasons), and the spectacular bronze door in the Portal of Love/Charity, installed in the summer of 2014.

The Passion façade, by Josep Subirachsis, in contrast, remarkably restrained and ascetic.It is a very controversial piece and has elicited a lot of criticism. In 1990 it was denounced by many. Catalan artists for having distorted Gaudí’s vision.

Robert Hughes, art critic for the New York Times and author of a highly regarded history of Barcelona, is scathing in his assessment. He ridicules the facade “from its faceless Christ to its ludicrous Darth Vader centurions.” They constitute “the most blatant mass of half-digested modernist clichés to be plunked on a notable building within living memory” (Hughes 540). Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian newspaper, bemoans the “cartoonish anguish” of the figures, “the awfulness of which is beyond description” Strong words!

Passion façade with towers.

In Subirach’s defence, he did follow Gaudí’s general design and sketch, notably the three levels, the triple portals and the six elegant, leaning columns that support a canopy protecting the statues beneath.

Crowning the canopy there is a row of short, bone-like pillars (much as Gaudí had sketched) which are reminiscent of similar bone-like verticals in Gaudí’s Casa Batlló).  But Subirachs made it clear, when he was commissioned in 1986 to do the Passion façade, that he would not imitate Gaudí’s figures; they were to be his own.

Gaudi’s sketch of the Passion façade.
Gaudí’s sketch echoes the profuse tableau of the Nativity façade. However, Subirachs’s façade is simple and austere. The sculptures with their angular features are substantially larger and stand out against the plain stone surroundings. Christ is gaunt and elongated –as tradition depicts Him—but the centurions look more like sinister Darth Vader clones than Roman soldiers (their helmets recall Gaudí’s chimneys on Casa Milà).
Subirach’s Passion façade. Detail

The narrative follows the biblical story on three levels. On the lowest level, flanking the left doorway we see the last supper and Judas’s kiss of betrayal. Flanking the right doorway, we witness Peter’s denial of Christ, and the Ecce homo or Pontius Pilate washing his hands and presenting Christ –crowned with thorns—to the hostile crowd.  In the centre and attached to a pillar in the middle of the large main doorway, we recognise Christ subjected to whipping following Pilate’s judgment.

On the second level, we have three groups: to the left a horseman**, in the centre panel above the main doorway Christ carrying the cross, with St Veronica in the middle, and across from Christ a figure which, possibly, is Subirach’s homage to Gaudí (the face is much like that of the older Gaudí).  The group to the right consists of Christ taken down from the Cross and attended by the three Marys (Christ’s mother, Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James).

**The prominent sculpture of the man on horseback is curious and seems out of place in the façade. The general interpretation is that he was the Roman soldier, Longinus, who allegedly pierced Christ’s side with his lance and later was converted to Christianity. The Gospels, however, do not identify the soldier by name and in art he is regularly shown on foot and wounding Christ from below (there are figures of him on horseback, but not at the crucifixion).  Could there be another possible explanation? Possibly the sculpture alludes to St George (Sant Jordi in Catalan) the dragon slayer and patron saint of Catalonia. Subirachs was a Catalan nationalist and this may have been his way of paying homage to Catalonia. True, there is no dragon, but the angle of the lance suggests a downward rather than upward thrust, which would be logical if he were spearing Christ on the cross.

The third level depicts, to the left, Roman soldiers casting lots for Christ’s clothes. In the centre, the crucifixion with Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, and St John, and to the right Christ being laid in the tomb.

Inside, the Sagrada Familia is stunningly beautiful and is perhaps the most striking part of the basilica.

Looking down the central nave, towards the altar.

Like the great medieval Gothic churches, the interior is remarkable for its luminosity (thanks to the numerous windows, many with beautiful stained glass, including spectacular rose windows), verticality and a feeling of weightlessness. 

Again like the medieval church, it moves spiritually, even mystically some might say, like a vision of paradise on earth, or a heavenly Jerusalem.

Viewed from almost any angle, the interior looks like a stone forest, the slender, fluted trunks (pillars) slanted gracefully towards each other before branching upward to the intricate, vaulted ceiling covered by what seem like palm leaves or large petalled flowers.

Inside the Sagrada Familia: A stone forest and light
Sagrada Familia. The crossing, where nave and transepts meet.
The effect is that of a colourful, sunlit forest canopy through which dappled light filters down on to the columns. Gaudí’s main inspiration for this structural innovation was nature and since nature was neither uniform nor monochromatic, he avoided straight lines and filled his buildings with colour. Inside the Sagrada Familia the familiar Gothic pattern is transformed into a “natural” vision.

What is remarkable about this ethereal forest is its deceptive simplicity. Well before sophisticated, computer-driven calculations, Gaudí had discovered “that an interlinking of parabolic arches and slanting columns can bear the hefty weight of even large vaulting masonry” (Zerbst 208).

This allowed Gaudí to do away with the famous Gothic flying buttresses, which he considered “crutches.” Instead of using the flying buttresses to prop the outside walls which in turn supported the weight of the roof, Gaudí used parabolic arches inside the church to transfer the weight inward onto the top of the parabola (curve) thereby supporting the roof directly from below.

The soaring pillars are made primarily of four different kinds of stone, varying in colour and load-bearing strength. The strongest stone, the maroon-tinted porphyry, supports the crossing, the point where the east and west transepts meet the nave. The four columns here will also provide the main support for the projected Christ tower, the tallest of the eighteen towers, at 558 feet (170 metres). Other stones used are local hard Montjuich stone, granite, and basalt.

The Glory façade is still under construction, although the sketch on the Sagrada Familia’s official website shows a rather bizarre structure reminiscent of some gigantic, spindly-legged winged creature. It remains to be seen what the final picture will look like; it will undoubtedly provoke controversy.

November 29, 2021.  And here is the latest controversy showing that not all is plain sailing with the Sagrada Familia. Excessive tourism has interrupted life for its neighbours and plans for an enormous stairway leading to the as yet unfinished main entrance will involve the destruction of three city blocks and the displacement of about a 1,000 families as well as businesses. See:

For a detailed description of progress in the construction of La Sagrada Familia in English, see:
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008
Cohn, David “Gaudí’s Sacred Monster: Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Catalonia,” The Architectural Review, July 25, 2012
Fraser, Giles  “Barcelona’s ‘cathedral for the poor’,” The Guardian, June 3, 2015
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona New York 1993
Moore, Rowan  “Sagrada Familia: Gaudí’s cathedral is nearly done, but would he have liked it,” The Guardian, April 24, 2011.
Stich, Sidra  Art-Sites Spain: Contemporary Art and Architecture San Francisco 2003
Zerbst, Rainer Antoni Gaudí  Koln 1991
General plan of Gothic cathedral:”Cathedral schematic plan” by Lusitania, with alterations by TTaylor – Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
Image of tortoise supporting pillar by Image of tortoise by Stanislav Kozlovskiy,_Turtle.jpg
Image of Passion facade with towers: “La Sagrada Familia (7852713848)” by Craig Sunter from Manchester, UK – La Sagrada FamiliaUploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
Gaudí’s sketch of the Passion façade: “Sagrada Família. Portal façana de la Passió” by Sagrada Família (oficial) – Treball propi. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
Image of forest of trees: Sagrada Família (oficial)http://commons.wikimedia.or/wiki/File:Sagrada_Fam%C3%ADlia._Interior_nau.jpg
Image of the crossing: “Sagrada Familia nave roof detail” by SBA73 from Sabadell, Catalunya – Tot conflueix / All’s conected. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –