On the trail of Gaudí – Sagrada Familia

It took me 4 years to write this post, but not as laborious or lengthy as the effort taken to build the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This landmark church is as much a Gaudí masterpiece as a showcase of the Art Nouveau and Modernist movements. And it is still not completed!

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, or simply Sagrada Família, is a one-of-a-kind temple, for its origins, foundation and purpose. Fruit of the work of genius architect Antoni Gaudí, the project was promoted by the people for the people. Five generations now have watched the Temple progress in Barcelona. Today, more than 140 years after the laying of the cornerstone, construction continues on the Basilica.

The Junta Constructora del Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is a private, non-profit, autonomous pious foundation. Its purpose is to build, preserve and restore the Sagrada Família, founded by local bookseller Josep Maria Bocabella and designed by Antoni Gaudí, on the plot of land delimited by Mallorca, Marina, Provença and Sardenya streets.

Original design for the project for the Sagrada Família by diocesan architect Francisco de Paula del Villar (top) followed the prevailing neo-Gothic design elements: ogival windows, buttresses, flying buttresses and a pointed bell tower. Technical differences, about the cost of materials, led this architect to be replaced with another who was starting to stand out in the field, Antoni Gaudí took the project in a different direction, transforming it into an ambitious proposal for the church of the future.

The Nativity Façade

This was the first façade to be built, overseen directly by Gaudí, who monitored every last detail, architectural, decorative and symbolic.

The Nativity Façade (Jul 2018) taken at opening time (9am)

The bell tower dedicated to the apostle Barnabas (first from left) was the only one Gaudí would see finished.

The main portal (picture left) in this facade is called Portal of Charity and represents Jesus. The cypress (picture middle) that crowns this portal represents the tree of life and is topped with a cross (Christ) in the shape of a tau, the first letter in the Greek word Theus (God); an X, representing the Father embracing the Son; and on top of the tau, a dove with its wings open, alluding to the Holy Spirit. White doves that have found shelter in the tree, as symbols of the men and women who have been saved by Christ’s redemption and welcomed with the love of God. Below the cypress tree, and hanging from its trunk, there are two staircases, one of virtue and one of holiness, which symbolise the paths humans must take to divinity.

At the very top (picture left), Mary is crowned by Jesus in the presence of Joseph; below (picture right), the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

The sculpture groups of the Nativity and the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary are the work of Jaume Busquets, while the scenes of the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi were created by Joaquim Ros i Bofarull. The singing and musical angels, the plaster models of which were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, are by Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, the same artist responsible for the doors for the three portals on this façade.

Before 2015, there were no door to this facade as Gaudí did not leave any plan for doors. Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo won an international competition to design the doors with a proposal that stayed true to Gaudí’s work method, inspired by nature. The doors have a strong inner core of stainless steel covered in coloured bronze panels. The pediment or upper transom of the doors combines bronze and clear glass. All the doors were hung in 2014 and 2015.

The other two portals are Portal of Faith (single door on the right, representing Mary) showing the Immaculate Conception (picture right) and Jesus presented in the Temple (picture middle bottom), and Portal of Hope (representing Joseph) showing Jesus presenting the dove to Joseph (picture left) and Flight to Egypt.

The Passion Facade

While the Nativity façade celebrates the joy of Jesus’ birth, the Passion façade remembers the last days of His life. So, it isn’t happy; it allows us to feel His pain.

The Passion Facade

The Passion façade has the same structure as the Nativity façade (a narthex and four bell towers) but, unlike the Nativity façade that exalts the joy of life, this façade is in essence dramatic because it expresses the pain and sacrifice of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and by extension that of all humanity. 

The Passion of Christ is a narrative of Christ’s final days on earth before His crucifixion and resurrection. It usually starts with the Last Supper (that section was closed off during my visit) and ends with the Ascension of Christ.

Gaudí left a drawing that describes this façade in great detail, explicitly indicating that it should be “harsh and cruel, as if made of bones” and even noted that some may find it “too extravagant”. The architect wanted it to inspire “fear”, and to do so he said he would use plenty of “chiaroscuro, recesses and protrusions, all of which gives it a gloomy effect.”

He also said: “What’s more, I’m willing to sacrifice the building itself, to break arches, cut down columns, in order to give people an idea of how bloody the sacrifice is.”

The Passion Facade (Jul 2018), just before the cross was mounted on the pediment

Gaudí never made it clear how exactly he wanted the scupltures of this facade to appear. When Josep Maria Subirachs (born 11 March 1927; died 7 April 2014) accepted the task of completing the facade in 1986, he did so given the condition that he would be allowed to complete the facade in his own style, so as not to have the sculptures confused with those of Gaudí. The sculptures were completed in 2010. I was just a couple of days away to witness the cross mounted on pediment of the Passion Facade.

The three portals on the façade that lead into the Basilica have double-leaf bronze doors, also by Subirachs. The central doorway has two doors, with ten thousand letters in relief spelling out fragments of the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, on the left door, and from the Gospel of John, on the right door. Some bits of bronze in the narration have been polished to highlight particularly meaningful words or phrases, like Pontius Pilate’s question: “And what is the truth?”.

The south door, on the right-hand side, is dedicated to the crown of thorns and when Jesus was taken before Pilate and Herod. The north door (not shown, area closed off during my visit), on the left-hand side, represents the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus praying while the apostles sleep.

The floor of the chancel of the portal of the Passion features a piece referencing Palm Sunday, by Domènec Fita.

Another design that showed the works of modern day designers at the Passion Facade was a scene referencing Palm Sunday by Domènec Fita carved into the floor of the chancel of the portal. There are more and more designers that did not use Gaudí’s original style to create an eclectic mix with La Sagrada Familia.

Bronze door model of the Glory Facade by Subirachs

Subirachs also designed the doors for the Glory Facade. The centre door (shown above) features the full Lord’s Prayer in Catalan and the rest of the door is filled with the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” in fifty different languages. The door handles are the letters A and G (for Antoni Gaudí) in the phrase “que cAiGuem en la temptació” (lead us not into temptation) from the Lord’s Prayer. The phrases on the doors of the other sacraments are the other petitions from the Lord’s Prayer.

Inside the Sagrada Familia

The apse is the most important part of a church, because it is where the altar is located. At the Sagrada Família, this will eventually connect symbolically to the tower of Jesus, rising up just above the apse vault. On the large vault of the apse, there is a mosaic in gold Venetian glass, evoking God the Creator: it is a triangle representing the Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) that intersects with a circle, alluding to the cosmos.

The presbytery is a platform delineated by ten columns and raised two metres above the Basilica floor. This is where the main altar is located (made from a huge block of porphyry 2.72 metres long and weighing 7,500 kg), along with the Bishop’s throne, ambo, seating for 140 con-celebrants and the organ (built in the Blancafort workshop in Collbató).

A Christ sculpted in terracotta by Francesc Fajula hangs over the altar inspired by the smaller Christ that Carles Mani created to Gaudí’s specifications for the prayer chapel at Casa Batlló. Fajula’s Christ hangs from a heptagonal baldachin that is five metres in diameter and has the same lines as the one Gaudí designed for the Cathedral of Mallorca.

From the baldachin hang bunches of grapes made of glass, with leaves and vines in copper in allusion to the elements of communion. On top, there are ears of wheat in white wood and keys.

Seven sided dais

The seven sides of the dais are covered in parchment and inscribed with the names of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord and the words of the hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo”.

The Temple naves are covered with hyperbolic vaults (intersecting hyperboloids): the ones on the side naves are exposed white concrete and the ones on the central nave, the crossing and the apse are done with flat brickwork, known as Catalan vaults. In this case, the tiles on the vault follow the generatrices of the hyperboloid, and triangular sections of green and gold Venetian glass trencadís mosaic fill the space in between, representing the leaves of a palm tree. 

As per Gaudí’s project, the lower parts of the columns inside the Temple are made of a variety of materials: the columns on the side naves of sandstone from Montjuïc; those on the central nave of granite; those on the perimeter of the crossing of basalt; and the four in the centre of red porphyry. This decision was not random. Gaudí chose the stone for each location depending on its strength, although with this resource he also brought a variety of colours and textures to the inside of the Temple.

The architectural solutions that Gaudí applied at the Sagrada Família allowed him to free up the walls from their loads, making it possible to put in many openings that let light into the Temple. The windows at the Basilica feature stained-glass windows that Joan Vila-Grau has been making since 1999, under the framework of a programme carried out according to Gaudí’s guidelines.

It must be noted that the stained-glass windows on the Nativity façade have bluer tones, corresponding to the morning light, while on the opposite side, facing the west, they are more orangey, like the evening light.

Bell Towers

The bell towers, which stand between 98.5 and 120 metres tall, are used to call people to worship. Eight are completed so far, and each one bears the name of an apostle and his image sculpted in a seated position. For the same reason, each one is crowned with a pinnacle that symbolically represents the attributes of the bishops, considered the successors of the apostles: the mitre with the cross, the crosier and the ring, done in trencadís mosaic with coloured Venetian glass.

The bell towers on the Nativity façade are dedicated to the apostles Barnabas (the only one that Gaudí saw completed), Simon, Jude Thaddeus and Matthias. The first was finished in 1925 and the other three, in 1930. The bell towers on the Passion façade, which were completed in 1977, are dedicated to James the Less, Bartholomew, Thomas and Philip. Those on the Glory façade will be dedicated to Andrew, Peter, Paul and James the Greater. To identify the representation of the bell towers from afar, below the cross that tops each of these towers there is a letter, the first initial of each of the apostles.

Western Sacristy

Etymologically, the word sacristy comes from sacred, and it is the place where sacred items are stored. In this case, those needed for liturgical celebrations. It is also where priests prepare for liturgical celebrations. Gaudí put two sacristies at the head of the Temple, and connected them with the cloister that will surround it. On 8 November 2015, on the fifth anniversary of the consecration of the Basilica, Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach, then Archbishop of Barcelona, blessed the sacristy, which was then used for the first time for this purpose.

The invocations or words praising God from the Book of Revelation (Praise, Glory, Wisdom, Thanks, Honour, Power and Strength) can be seen in the windows of the sacristy that look out onto the street and on the cupola that tops the semicircular construction at the corner of Carrer de Provença and Carrer del Rosselló.

The section of the cloister of Our Lady of Dolours, including the part of the cloister that penetrates the sacristy building, features a display of original and reproduction liturgical items designed by Gaudí for the crypt at the Sagrada Família and the prayer chapel at Casa Batlló.

Wood and wrought iron wardrobes (c. 1898) designed by Gaudí

Despite having been damaged in the uprisings of 1936, the two wood and wrought iron wardrobes designed by Gaudí have been returned to their original state, restoring the pieces that were left and remaking those that were lost, after conducting detailed studies of the remains and photographs from that time. It is the cupboard for vestments and liturgical items.

Other Buildings in the Temple

There are many other interesting finds if you walk and observe carefully.

Schools at the Sagrada Família

Gaudí built the Schools at the Sagrada Família around 1909, mainly with the goal of providing schooling for children in the neighbourhood that was growing up around the Temple and for the children of the people working on the site. The wavy shape of the walls isn’t a question of form, organic shape or decoration. It is, as we noted at the beginning, geometry and mechanics that come together here successfully to create this result. Such a thin wall wouldn’t have withstood the first windy day if it hadn’t had this wavy form, which gives it inertia and makes it stable and strong.

The acronym JMJ (Jesus, Mary and Joseph)

The acronym JMJ (Jesus, Mary and Joseph), one of the ways Gaudí referred to the Holy Family, can be seen in this utility building in the yard.

Remember to look up and down the crevices for really interesting finds that you will not see in other cathedrals or basilicas. You really need a full half-day to walk around.

Gaudí and Modernism

Gaudí had two sources of inspiration: the Christian message and nature.

One is directly tied to the history of the Church, the holy scriptures, the tradition and intercession of saints, doctrine, refor- mation (particularly the work of Dom Guéranger, founder and abbot of the Benedictine congregation at Solesmes) and the cult of Christianity.

The other derives from observing nature, an interest he developed in childhood that gave him a conceptual and methodological foundation. Gaudí didn’t copy nature; he analysed how it worked to extract struc- tural and formal ideas he could apply to architecture. Two sources of inspiration that, to a certain extent, were united in his belief that the work of the Creator could not be imitated.

Gaudí used light to bring out the splendour and expressiveness of his architecture. And the purpose of this light shining harmoniously into the interior of the Temple is none other than to convey the presence of God. Light not only shines into the Sagrada Família through windows on the walls, but also through skylights in the vaults.

Rays of light make the pinnacles that top the towers and windows shine. The sun in the east illuminates the portals on the Nativity façade and accentuates the joy of life that is the birth of Jesus. On the Passion façade, the contrasting light and shadows from the setting sun makes it feel even coarser and harsher.

Glory facade under construction

While on the yet-to-be-completed Glory façade, the midday sun will make the sixteen lanterns on the monumental narthex shine and illuminate the main entrance to the Basilica.

He worked on the Temple for 43 years, from 1883 to 1926. In 1914, he decided to stop working on other projects to focus exclusively on the Sagrada Família, to which he dedicated himself fully until his death in 1926, a few days after being run over by a tram. He is buried in the Chapel of Our Lady of Carmel, in the crypt of the Sagrada Família.

Sagrada Familia – Temple, Church, Cathedral or Basilica?

On 7 November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the Temple and granted it the status of a Minor Basilica (all Major Basilicas are in Rome). So what is La Sagrada Familia anyway? In terms of the physical building, a basilica is the highest accolade given to physical church building. All cathedrals are churches but not all churches are cathedrals. Cathedral must have a bishop in place. Normally basilicas have greater significance than cathedrals but if the bishop of a particular cathedral is also head of the diocese, then this particular cathedral would outrank the basilica in his diocese.

Pope Benedict arriving to bless La Sagrada Familia as a minor basilica (©AP)

A little known fact – which do you think would be the highest ranking church in the Catholic world, the Vatican Basilica? Wrong answer, the Vatican Basilica is only the second highest. The highest ranking church is Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Saviour and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran, or simply St John Lateran, as it is the home church of the Pope.

The Cryptogram

The cryptogram is one of the most popular symbols of the Passion Facade. It is an enigmatic square with sixteen numbers that allows one to count up to 310 different combinations, always adding up the number 33 – the age of Christ at His crucifixion (which was the most important event in the Passion).

Partially hidden the last column – 4, 9 5, 15

The cryptogram was created by Subirachs.

Subriachs’ Cryptogram

Another interesting aspect of this cryptogram is that there are two repeated: 10 and 14. Adding these two numbers together, the resulting sum is 48 (10+10+14+14). 48 is also the resulting sum when the letters of the word INRI (Latin: Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, which stands for “Jesus, King of the Jews”) are mathematically calculated:

Latin Roman Alphabets and corresponding number sequence

This fact means that, apart from finding 310 combinations which add up to 33, cryptografically we find written the word INRI in the Passion Facade.

The Never-ending Story

Aware that he wouldn’t be able to finish the Temple, Gaudí decided to build it in parts, thinking that if he could leave one section completed it would be more difficult to abandon the project. So, after the crypt was finished and before work began on the apse façade, he tackled the Nativity façade. His disciples carried on with this work method, raising the towers and lower narthex on the Passion façade between 1954 and 1977.

In 1936, La Sagrada Família is vandalised during the Spanish Civil War. Plans and photographs were burnt and the plaster models smashed. Thank goodness some of the plans and models were kept off-site that gave future builders some ideas what Gaudí intended. But much more were guessworks. As a result, modern additions remain controversial. Their successors continued in the same manner, focusing on the naves, which were covered in 2010. The Catholic Church, to which Gaudi devoted much of his ascetic life while working on the basilica, did not consecrate the building until then.

The Construction Office inside the basilica – modern 3D printing helped to visualise what Gaudí had in mind.

Afterwards, the works carried on according to the same schedule: the western sacristy was completed in 2016, and serves as the model for the second sacristy and the central towers that are currently being built.

Hoisting of the illuminated star onto the top of the Virgin Mary tower (© AP)

In 2021, the tower of the Virgin Mary was completed and inaugurated. The tower dedicated to Jesus Christ will be finished by 2026, while construction of the Glory façade will be left for the final phase.

Gaudí and Barcelona 

Seven buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) in Barcelona or its surrounding area were included in the World Heritage List in 1984 and 2005. These buildings bear witness to the exceptional contribution of Gaudí’s creations to the evolution of the architecture and construction techniques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are the expression of an eclectic and very personal style that their creator employed not only in architecture, but also in gardening, sculpture and many other decorative arts. 

The seven buildings are: Park GüellPalau Güell, Casa Milà, Casa Vicens, Gaudí’s work on the Sagrada Família’s Nativity façade and crypt, Casa Batlló and the Colònia Güell crypt.

Visited Aug 2018

For more detail information of Sagrada Familia, read this excellent official website of Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.

2 comments on “On the trail of Gaudí – Sagrada Familia

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