Sagrada Familia: Gaudí’s Tribute to Natural Sublimity

View of the ‘tree columns’ supporting the structure of the cathedral from the inside – Photo taken by Anna-Rose Wain 2019

Having had a sublime retreat from civilisation in the isolation of the Spanish Pyrenees for 6 days, I was now ready to immerse myself in city life. Upon immediate arrival in Barcelona, the sight of people wearing clothes for style, differing from the practical attire I had seen worn by everyone in the Pyrenees, was a sight for sore eyes. All of the things I had began to miss such as supermarkets, restaurants and cafés, providing the luxury of choice in cuisine, awaited, but most of all, I craved culture. I had visited Barcelona before with friends, thus I anticipated the hip bars, the antiquity of the Gothic quarter and the atmosphere of the streets at night as performers rivalled for the attention of pedestrians. Sagrada Familia was visible from the motorway. Of course I had heard of its ‘unmatched genius’. Of course I knew about the UNESCO site which had taken over a century to build and was still under construction. Yet, for some reason the novelty attached to the building made it seem like another ‘gap yah’ tourist attraction to tick off my bucket list, not something I was genuinely interested in experiencing. Nonetheless my parents had bought me a ticket, an offer I couldn’t refuse so on one afternoon we escaped the urban rush of the Catalonian city in the solace of the Basilica. I must admit that what I walked into was far from your typical Mediaeval Gothic European church, it was a step into a deeply creative space which invited every visitor to experience sometime behind themselves; what I experienced there was transcendental.

Surreal, organic and dynamic: the adjectives that leap to mind when I first saw the Nativity Façade. ‘i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia'(it’s full title), is a Roman Catholic basilica, yet my perceptions of this rather conservative denomination of Christianity seemed to be blown out of the water with this radical architectural feat. There is no way to capture the breadth and pure majesty of the outside without seeing it first hand, hence my found prejudice having seen plenty of photos on postcards and never seen it in person. There it stood in front of me and it took my breathe away in its sheer scale and magnitude. In true gothic style, the church has a multitude of steeples and three portals, each widely different in structure as well as ornament. Already I began to see the links Gaudí had with the natural world, with leaves, floral elements and animals featuring as much as significant biblical figures. We know that Gaudí had intended for this façade to have the same loud colours characteristic of Güell Park having retorted laconically on multiple occasions to visitors that “it’s going to be painted over” – although it stands monochromatic still, the forms themselves emphasise Gaudí’s passionate engagement with creation and the Genesis story through his use of organic forms.

Gaudí started this project in 1884 with knowledge that he wouldn’t live to its completion, however, his vision for the church was beyond himself; instead he had a vision for the city and the community of Barcelona. The cathedral was never intended to be the work of a single architect, but of several generations, a point reiterated in Gaudí’s proclamation that St. Joseph himself would complete it. Suddenly the scaffold in front of me took on a new meaning and acted as more than an interruption to the building’s beauty. I found myself fixated on the cranes and workers above me, building the Jesus Christ tower which would eventually climb as high as 172.5m crowing it the tallest tower in Barcelona. As Fernando Villa (the current Director of Operations) says in his interview with Time Magazine, just as the rest of the building was intended to have deeply spiritual symbolic meaning, the height of the tower will stand as a testament to God’s sovereignty over the city. The stair case allowing visitors to reach the top of the tower can been seen as a way of getting ‘closer to God’. In the same interview, the Construction Site Manager, Jaume Torreguitart, tells of how proud himself and everyone else on the project are to be contributing to the construction of such a masterpiece. Indeed, this in itself is a form of worship for the local community, engaging in the creation of a building which is ultimately purposed to bring glory to God. Gaudí’s progressive architectural innovations may be the foundation of the cathedral but one cannot ignore the essence of the community which runs through the building’s brick and mortar.

An amusing yet profound story I stumbled upon about Gaudí was concerning the visit of Albert Schweitzer to the temple. When Gaudí was taking him round the construction site, he used the story of how he chose made the donkey seen on the façade to demonstrate his approach to the design as a whole:

” When it became that I was looking for the donkey as a model for the flight to Egypt, they brought me the most beautiful donkey in Barcelona. But I couldn’t use it.” [Eventually he found an old wagon donkey that belonged to a local woman selling in a market.] “Its head was hanging down, almost touching the ground. With a great deal of effort I was able to persuade the woman to bring it to me. Then, after the donkey had been covered, section by section, in plaster, she wept because she thought that it would not survive. That was the donkey for the flight to Egypt, and it makes an impression on you because it is not invented, it is real.”

Antoni Gaudí i Cornet

The organic nature of the forms on the outside of the building create an authenticity, a link to not what is ‘invented’ and manmade but ‘real’ and natural. There is a movement away from the commercialisation of architecture in the modern era and a very grass-roots faith which is reflected in the stone.

After wading through the chaos of the queues and tense atmosphere of security, the light filled chambers of the main chapel brush away distraction and preoccupation, opening the senses to a pure experience of sanctity. When I looked around, unlike other cathedrals I’d surveyed in the past, the contents were sparse with no aisles and very few statues – the protagonist wasn’t religious paintings and iconography, instead it was the presence of something greater: Light. The power of this element has been emphasised throughout cultures all around the world and in too many religious and mythological narratives to count, making it a universal experience for all. Paying attention to the biblical context of Gaudí’s symbolism, we can see the Genesis narrative continues to run through his creation as he almost sets in stone God’s first command “Let there be light”(Gen. 1:3) and indeed, we can only agree that this light is “good”(1:4). For me, the incarnation of Christ throughout nature is very much embodied in light as its pure brightness, the vision it provides and power of life it brings speak of Jesus being “the Light of the world” (John 8:12).

At the time of this visit I was busy reading ‘The Universal Christ’, a book written by one of my favourite contemporary theologians, Richard Rohr; I’d soon come to associate my experience in the cathedral directly with a passage I read over and over from the novel:

“Scientists have discovered that what looks like darkness to the human eye is actually filled with tiny particles called “neutrinos”, slivers of light that pass through the entire universe. Apparently there is no such thing as total darkness anywhere, even though the human eye thinks there is. John’s gospel was more accurate than we realised when it described Christ as “a light that darkness cannot overcome”(John 1:5). Knowing that the inner light of things cannot be eliminated or destroyed is deeply hopeful.”

Richard Rohr, ‘The Universal Christ'(2019)

Rohr even goes onto explaining how John uses an active verb (“The true light…was coming into the world,” (John 1:9)) at the birth of Jesus, revealing how just as the cathedral is still being built, the Kingdom of God is still being built and the Christ mystery is far from a one-time event. The progressive nature of the cathedral’s layout tells a story of birth, life, death and rebirth through Christ. Just as we are all growing in our roles as part of Christ’s body, so too this building is still growing.

Leading on from this abundant light we move onto the source of the light which creates immense displays of colour, flooding the empty crevices of the angular forms. In the images above you can see how the sun-rise shines through the East side of the cathedral – where the Nativity Façade is – creating a spectrum of fresh cool blues and greens, associated with spring, new beginnings and morning light. On the West side, when the sun sets, the windows which line the Passion Façade leak warm hues of dark crimsons and ochres evoking connotations of blood, love and death (shown in photo below).

When wondering around the space, one gets the uncanny feeling of walking through a lush forest of pines as you stare at the immense central pillars holding the expanse of the ceiling up. These central columns are representative of trees branching off at different levels as branches to support the weight of the interior structure of vaults, the roof and the towers. Since Gaudí’s death, he has gained a lot of respect amongst sustainability centred architects due to his environment-conscious designs. Testing the structures of the towers, Gaudí used hanging chain models, loaded with weights until they were the right shape that if they were made in masonry, the opposite way round, they’d form a perfect structure with no flying buttresses outside the church. This method meant that the church was sustained completely from the inside and didn’t use any more materials than necessary, thus reducing waste. Contemporary architects finishing Gaudí’s project use virtual reality(VR) technology to make all models and blue prints for future parts of construction to further his sustainable vision, as it helps to further cuts waste down and massively improves efficiency, therefore causing as little disruption as possible.

I’ve never been particularly engaged with the technical, more mathematical side of architecture, yet I found myself fascinated by the detailed logic behind the cathedrals architectural design. The four columns in the centre are made of a carefully selected material, an extremely resistant type of stone. These pillars will support the tower of Jesus Christ, deliberately smaller than the nearby mountain of Montjuïc as Gaudí is quoted saying that the work of man should never surpass that of God. The rest of the pillars all differ in dimensions and materials, representing the variation in species occurring nature – the dark grey columns are made of basalt, while the light grey ones are granite and the columns in the aisles sandstone.

“Do you want to know where I found my model? An upright tree; it bears its branches and these, in turn, the leaves. And every individual part had been growing harmoniously, magnificently, ever since God the artist created it.”

Antoni Gaudí i Cornet

One of my favourite features of the chapel was definitely the incredibly powerful Glory Façade doors. Gaudí deliberately placed this door facing the sea on his designs due to the biblical significance of water and the connection between baptism and the resurrection. Once the building is completed it will be the majestic entrance to the temple, celebrating the eternal life brought by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To reiterate this, sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, made the hefty doors from bonze, casting into the metal the Lord’s Prayer written in Catalan in the centre. Surrounding this central raised type, is the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” translated into 50 languages, bringing an international accessibility to the prayer. This sculpture captures Gaudí’s passion for masonry and craftsmanship; he deliberately stuck to very naturally occurring materials and often objected to the use of concrete, hence Subirach is respecting the artist’s legacy. Subirach also completed the doors for the entrance on the West side leading onto the Passion Façade, but instead of the Lord’s Prayer they read the Gospel passages that narrate the Passion of Jesus Christ.

View of the Passion Façade designed by Josep Maria Subirach- photo taken by Anna-Rose Wain 2019

Perhaps one of the reasons why this building is so remarkable is how the narrative of Christ’s life are portrayed on the outside of the church instead of the inside unlike most conventional churches, presenting the Gospel to the city instead of the congregation inside. The presentation of the different stages of Jesus’ life offer juxtaposed themes as the Nativity Façade – as seen in the stain-glass interior – speaks of birth and appears to be dripping with flesh-like substance, whereas the Passion Façade is stark and the skeletal structure seems to offer a barren perspective on human nature. The figures are an almost theatrical presentation of the story of the Last Supper, Jesus’ betrayal, trial, Peter’s denial and his eventual cruxifixction. The part which impacted me the most was Judus’ betrayal of Jesus: Judas is kissing Jesus, holding his head in his hands, a sign of utmost affection used as a tool for treachery. A dog lies nearby, a symbol of loyalty, which is shattered in this scene as one Jesus’ most trusted disciples turns him over to the Romans. There is something powerful in sculpture that can make a story so much more real; the facial expressions and movement captured in the stone can be read as the universal language of the body. The Gospel itself is not stranger to the power of the material, in fact, one of the most poignant points of Jesus’ birth was his humanity, God incarnate; God transforms things by becoming them. Christ values the material and constantly used parables, relatable and real situations, to express divine messages and so too does this temple use architecture to point towards an immaterial, transcendental experience.

“Originality consists in returning to the origin.”

Antoni Gaudí i Cornet

Indeed, there is still much to say of Gaudí unfinished masterpiece but I have only a limited amount of time and I’m sure you only have a limited amount of interest. Nevertheless, if you have the opportunity to visit this exquisitely sacred space, I’m sure you too will agree that it truly stimulates a deeply transcendental experience, pointing towards a timeless and everlasting life which is beyond yet within ourselves. Whether this is indeed ‘Christ’ for you or embodied in other religious figures, names or ideas, the cathedral is certainly worth your time, if even just for a magnificent view of modern architecture. As always, I’d love your feedback and discussion points! Please feel free to leave a comment below and if you’re interested in how I integrate themes of spirituality, space and light into my own art please visit my art instagram page which you can find on my homepage.

Thank you for reading and I hope you have a fantastic rest of your day.

Further information (including referenced material):

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