God's Architect: The Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona
When Pope Benedict XVI visits Spain’s most popular tourist attraction on Nov. 6, he will consecrate the 128-year-old structure known as the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, and it will become a Catholic church. Since Barcelona is already home to a cathedral, this monumental building by the famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) will be designated the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.
Even in its unfinished state, the Sagrada Familia is a jaw-dropper. The building can hold 14,000 worshippers; and its towers, when finished in the next two years, will soar over the Barcelona skyline. Yet it is not just the building’s size that amazes, but the scale of Gaudí’s spiritual ambition: the geometric forms he found in creation have been placed at the service of liturgy and worship. Perhaps only St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante can match Gaudí in having attempted, in their own genres, to condense the entirety of Catholic doctrine into a single work.
As I stood recently under its just-finished golden canopy, like the roof of a magical forest, I found it hard to imagine the finished building. A huge truck sat in the nave amid the whiz and whir of machines, while men in hard hats worked furiously to ready the altar.
Work has not yet begun on the Glory facade, where the Credo will float heavenward on suspended clouds. At least two more decades will be needed to complete Gaudí’s vision. But when the interior is ready, a milestone will have been reached.
The recent progress has been astonishing. The Sagrada Familia has been financed privately—in Gaudí’s time, the late 19th century, through donations, these days by three million tourists a year (more than visit either the Prado or the Alhambra), who pay 12 euros each. Ten years ago, when the Japanese-born sculptor Etsuro Sotóo became a Catholic, he could never have imagined that the building would be so ready so soon. “There were few tourists and not a lot of money then,” said Sotóo, who began working on the Sagrada Familia in 1978.
The 1992 Olympics put Barcelona and Gaudí’s templo on the tourist map. But only in the past five years, as popular fascination for Gaudí has grown, have visitors brought in sufficient cash to accelerate construction. It is easy to miss the irony of the story: Europe’s largely secular, agnostic crowds have funded the construction of the continent’s last great Catholic church.
The archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Luis Martínez Sistach, believes the Sagrada Familia will be “an ‘atrium of the gentiles’ open to all who seek beauty, truth and kindness” in Barcelona, city of hedonism and tolerance, el Amsterdam del sur. Gaudí’s church “brings the religious and the divine—the Gospel message of human dignity—into the heart of secularised western European culture,” said the cardinal.
The papal Mass of consecration in November will be attended by Spain’s royals, its anticlerical prime minister and at least 50 cardinals. The consecration will also give Pope Benedict XVI an opportunity to summon European culture to its Christian roots by re-twinning faith and art.
Gaudí is the antithesis of postmodern subjectivity. For him, beauty is the splendor of truth. A truth exists in the material world that echoes Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The artist unveils but does not create this truth, which is accessible to anyone from anywhere, for the Word is at once objective and universal.
For Gaudí, an artist must obey creation, the manifestation of God’s will. Take gravity, for example. Gaudí sought to work with gravity, converting an enemy into a friend. His buildings look curiously upside-down. The Sagrada Familia is a summary of the geometric forms—hyberbolic paraboloids—from which eggs, bones, muscle and mountains are made.
“With two rulers and a cord,” Gaudí once said, “one generates all architecture.” In those two straight lines Gaudí saw the Father and the Son, each unique and infinite, with the cord of the Holy Spirit (the love between the first two persons of the Trinity) binding them together. All of creation is formed from these surfaces, which bear the Trinitarian imprint. When you pray in the Sagrada Familia, you will be enveloped by structural forms that are closer to God’s designs than are those of any other church. “People will find answers to their questions, to their dissatisfaction with materialism,” says Sotóo.
Human Family, Holy Family
It falls to Joan Rigol, a former president of the Catalan parliament who is now in charge of the building works of the association that owns the Sagrada Familia, to manage the delicate shift from tourist mecca to Catholic basilica. He must do so without alienating the millions of nonbelievers who support it. The Sagrada Familia, he told me, must keep the tourists but also attract the pilgrims. Hence his plans to create “not just spaces” within the structure, “but also times of day” when visitors—believers and nonbelievers alike—will be asked to pause and reflect. He says the basilica will be dedicated to promoting the human family, “not just in the biological sense of father, mother, children but in the sense that we all form one large family.”
How will the spiritual infrastructure—Mass, confession, adoration—happen without an upsurge in vocations? “That all still has to be worked out,” Rigol shrugs.
Josep Maria Tarragona, a leading authority on Gaudí who is currently writing the positio (position paper) for his beatification, believes that opening the Sagrada Familia for worship is an act of faith by the cardinal in the architect’s massively optimistic vision of Christianity in Europe. “Gaudí saw his church as a kind of Lourdes dedicated to the Holy Family. The liturgies he foresaw would involve a bishop and 200 priests. It was pretty outrageous for his own time, but for our own,” laughs Tarragona, “it’s incredible.”
Tarragona is one of a small group of visionaries who in the early 1990s proposed the idea of beatifying Gaudí. The Junta de Obras (the building association), then under a different president, opposed the move, resenting what its members saw as an attempt to “restrict” Gaudí’s appeal, while secular Barcelona deplored what it saw as the church stealing “their” artist.
Finding little support from bishops, the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudí was established as a civil association, printing prayer cards and documenting Gaudí’s sanctity. The church endorsement came in 2000 from Pope John Paul II, who asked Cardinal Ricard Carlés if it were true that Gaudí was a layman. With Pope John Paul’s blessing, the nihil obstat was granted in months. The association is awaiting a miracle, but with Barcelona’s archbishop, the new president of the Junta de Obras and Rome (now in the person of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) all now eager, Gaudí’s road to canonization is clearly open.
The architect’s conversion took place when he was in his 40s, a decade after he had begun work on the Sagrada Familia; it was a mature decision that he saw through to its final consequences.
While in his 30s Gaudí was the most sought-after (and expensive) architect in Spain, whose wealthy patrons hired him to design some of the most remarkable houses ever built. Some are Barcelona landmarks. The artist’s base for many years was a workers’ colony south of the city, funded by the industrialist Eusebi Güell. It was the most advanced architectural studio of its day.
Favoring the fibrous forms of nature, Gaudí designed structures that can be, on first encounter, deeply unsettling: walls swell, columns defy gravity, surfaces flow like lava. But as in nature, his forms serve function. An architect who seeks that function, Gaudí believed, can arrive at beauty. “Those who seek out the laws of nature as support for their new work collaborate with the Creator,” he said. “Originality consists in returning to the origin.”
Genius and success threatened Gaudí’s rapid-burn life. After Pepita Moreu, a beautiful woman who fascinated Gaudí, spurned his offer of marriage, his life took a sharp turn. The architect shed his wealth and, from his 40s until his death at 74, took up asceticism, including a meat-and-alcohol-free diet and regular prayer.
Gaudí took over work on the Sagrada Familia in 1883, revising the original architect’s plans from scratch. But in 1906 Gaudí’s life was framed by daily confession and Mass; his spiritual life and great work began to merge. He devoted himself singlemindedly to the “expiatory temple,” knowing it would take generations after his death to make good his epic vision. “My client,” he would joke when people asked when it would be finished, “is not in a hurry.”
Thanks to Tarragona and the other promoters of Gaudí’s beatification, including Etsuro Sotóo, the architect has been rescued from the myths that attached to the popular interest in his work. The Catholic ascetic Gaudí is now part of the guidebook account.
“Gaudí, apart from his faith, is incomprehensible,” Tarragona says. “What the Sagrada Familia offers artistically is the same whether you have faith or not. But only understanding Gaudí’s religious culture and purpose can you grasp his art and message.”
That will be easier after November, when form will at last meet the function for which “God’s architect” designed the Sagrada Familia: Europe’s last great church—or the first of its new Christian age.
is European correspondent for America and author of Faithful Citizens: A Practical Guide to Commu-nity Organizing and Catholic Social Teaching (Darton, Longman & Todd).
We, too, visited Barcelona and Sagrada Familia in September of this year and were awestruck by the design, magnitude and beauty of Gaudi's masterpiece. In fact, we returned to it several times that week to just bask in its presence. Thank you for fleshing out for us, Gaudi's life and spirituality; and especially for this highlight remembrance of our vacation! Most timely indeed.