Barcelona X: The Amazing Sagrada Família Basilica

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família – or simply La Sagrada Família (translation: Holy Family) – is a Roman Catholic church designed by Gaudí that, 130 years later, is still under construction.  As shown below, it’s big!  Although parallels with Gothic

cathedrals of the Middle Ages are obvious, there is one major difference; in today’s world, I can’t imagine another such church ever being built.  If things stay on schedule, it will have taken 144 years to reach completion.  That makes this basilica the Last-of-the-Mohicans special – and is it ever!  Gaudí’s grand masterpiece is structurally innovative, wildly creative, incredibly bold, and unmistakably organic in architecture and decor.  The interior is spectacular, and like nothing you have ever seen.  Literally.

Before we explore this masterpiece by Gaudí, let me give you some history (ah … actually a bunch of history).  Construction on the basilica started in 1882 with a Neo-gothic design by the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano.  However, due to disagreements,

the architect resigned and Antoni Gaudí took over in 1883.  A few years later Gaudí proposed a more grand design, abandoning the Neo-gothic plan for something more monumental and innovative, both in structure and in construction.  It would be a large church with a Latin-cross floor plan and soaring towers, and be immensely symbolic both architecturally and sculpturally, conveying teachings of the Gospels and Christian Church.

In 1914 Gaudí decided to concentrate exclusively on Sagrada Família; he undertook no other major work in the later years of his life.  On a summer day in 1926, while taking his daily walk to church, he was struck by a passing tram and knocked unconscious.  Assumed to be a beggar due to a lack of identity documents and shabby clothing, he did not receive immediate aid.  Eventually transported to a hospital, he received rudimentary care.  He was finally recognized the next day but died 2 days later at the age of 73.  He had worked for 43 years on the temple.  “It is not a disappointment that I will not be able to finish the temple. I will grow old, but others will come after me. What must be always preserved is the spirit of the work; its life will depend on the generations that transmit this spirit and bring it to life.”  A. Gaudí.

After Gaudí’s death in 1926, the construction of Sagrada Família was continued by architects and craftsmen who had worked with him, following his plans and plaster models.  I think it worth spending a little time to understand how novel Gaudí’s design was (and continues to be).  In his desire to overcome defects he saw in Gothic structural systems, he developed a new architecture based on organic and geometric forms of nature to create balanced and self-supporting structures.  Nature often incorporates in its structures such geometrical forms as the ellipse, parabola and hyperbola, and Gaudí adapted these and – when using two together – their intersections to be integral structural forms of his architecture.  An example of Gaudí copying from nature is shown below, comparing the structure of a plant pollen grain to windows in the Sagrada.

Gaudí rarely drew detailed plans of his works, instead preferring to create them as 3-dimensional scale models, as illustrated below and as shown incorporated in the

Sagrada (Note: Isn’t that last picture, showing the interior, absolutely breathtaking??).  Some of Gaudi’s evolving models of La Sagrada are shown below.  They show an evolution from a neo-Gothic structure to a model based on the parabola to the final design using

hyperbolas.  The models are reconstructions, alas.  At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936), anarchists broke into La Sagrada, wrecked a crypt and chapel, and destroyed and burned Gaudí’s studio. His drawings did not survive, but the mobs left behind many broken pieces of his original models which were painstakingly restored.

Gaudí also used the catenary arch; a catenary is the curve that a string or chain assumes under its own weight when supported only at its ends.  Gravity gives it that shape.  Flip it upside down, and it’s a weight-bearing structure with only compression forces.  In Gaudí’s time it was used only in the construction of suspension bridges; Gaudí was the first to use it in common architecture.  He would attach a drawing of the building floor plan to a ceiling, from which he would attach strings (representing columns, arches, walls and vaults) with bags of birdshot (for the weight of small building parts).  He would then take a picture that, when inverted, showed the structure for columns and arches that he was looking for.  Using this technique, Gaudí arrived at the revolutionary idea of using inclined columns that subsequently branched out like trees.  The leaning columns better resist the perpendicular pressure that they experience, and the branches support a structure of intertwined hyperboloid vaults.   Space is divided into small, independent and self-supporting modules without needing the buttresses required with the neo-Gothic style.  Further, the hyperboloid vaults have an empty center, allowing natural light to enter, in contrast to Gothic vaults with their keystones that resulted in closed, dark cathedrals.  Where Gothic vaults have ribs, the hyperboloid design allows the intersection between vaults to have holes, which Gaudí employed to give the impression of a starry sky.  Further, Gaudí conceived the branching columns of the church to have not only a structural function but to represent a forest, a natural temple that invites prayer; and like sunlight filtering through leaves, to create a space of magical lighting conducive to intimacy and meditation.  Isn’t that picture on the left gorgeous?  Wait ’til you see the Gaudí interior!

One last architectural point.  To achieve greater stability and a slender and more harmonious effect, Gaudí designed all the branching columns to have a double-turn helicoidal shape (right turn and left turn) similar to those in the branches and trunks of

trees.  The base of each column has a cross-section that is a polygon or star which, as it twists to the right and left, transforms into a circle higher up.  Depending on the position of the column in the basilica and the weight load, the columns have different cross sections, as shown schematically in the last two pictures above.

OK, after talking about Gaudí and the bones of Sagrada Família, maybe now you want to actually see it?  And I want to show it!  But first let me give you the overview of this complex basilica.  The Sagrada Família could be used to give a crash course on the Catholic religion, given the wealth of Christian symbols that Gaudí placed on the facades.

First of all, just look at the model to the left, and be amazed.  That’s a church?  At this scale it almost looks like a Disney fairyland castle run amok.  However, up close, surrounded by the cathedral’s details, the structure is overwhelmingly, undeniably religious.

The basilica has three monumental entrances, each one representing one of the three crucial events of Christ’s existence: his birth (Nativity facade); his Passion, Death and Resurrection (facing us in this picture); and his present and future Glory (facing to the right in this picture). The Sagrada has 18 towers, each with a special significance.  The middle tower is dedicated to Jesus Christ; around it are four towers representing the Gospels.  The tower above the apse, crowned by a star, represents the Virgin Mary, while the remaining 12 towers – 4 over each entrance – represent the Apostles.  Christian symbols, as well as Modernista nods to nature, are present everywhere on and in the basilica, too numerous to mention but including the main symbols of the Old Testament.

We’ll start at the current entrance and the oldest facade, the Nativity, begun in 1892 (when the Sagrada is finished, this will be a side entrance).  This facade faces the rising sun, symbolic of the birth, life, and light of Jesus.  It’s decorated in a style I would call

“too busy”.  The facade’s decoration includes over 100 plant species and an equal number of animals (!).  It attempts to communicate and celebrate man’s journey from creation through the old testament, then Christ’s birth and youth, and at the highest niche, visible in the last two pictures above, Christ triumphantly crowning Mary.  Starting at the bottom of the Nativity facade – you might find it helpful to refer back to the right 2 pictures above – this facade has 3 separate entrances each nestled inside a grand parabola (or portico), each portico representing one of the theological virtues of Hope, Faith and Charity.  Two massive columns flanking the central portico rest either on a turtle or a tortoise, representing dominion over land and sea.  The central and largest portico, Charity, has fabulous bronze double doors inspired by nature, full of metal leaves, flowers and insects, as shown below; perhaps suggesting that you are about to enter Gaudí’s reverential forest (of columns) mentioned earlier.  Note that the statuary surrounding the doors (the Adoration

of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds) practically includes you in it as you enter (details shown below).  The scene in the middle above the doorway celebrates Jesus’ birth and the “Sagrada Família” – the holy family of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in the

manger.  Arrayed just above the Holy Family is a chorus of young angels with angel

musicians flanking them (and the star of Bethlehem atop a central pillar between the windows).  Above the angel choir is a depiction of the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will be the mother of the Son of God.  Finally, much higher than all of these decorations and at the apex of the Charity portico’s parabola is the beginning of a spire, the Tree of Life, which at its base opens out to form a large and commanding niche showing Jesus Christ crowning Mary as Queen of Heaven, as shown below.  Interestingly, Joseph is present in this Coronation scene – an

unusual detail.  The Tree of Life sweeps upward, pointing towards the heavens with many symbols of Christianity and with doves of peace nesting in its branches.  Among the Christian symbols is the pelican, based on an ancient legend that it will pierce its own breast with its beak to feed blood to its hungry babies, a symbol of Christ sacrificing himself for man.

Some details of the Nativity facade’s Hope and Faith portals are shown below.

There’s more to this side of the Sagrada Família than just that ornate Nativity entrance, as shown in the first picture below.  There’s a looooong extension to the left, with a very different architecture!  Here geometry won over ornate story telling; there’s still religious symbolism, but basically the windows are simply amazing, with each vertical level wonderfully different.  Windows on the first two levels, shown below, are relatively

conventional; the next level is simply awesome.  In the first picture below, there’s a lot going on – plant statuary on the triangular roofs, interesting spiral columns, alpha and omega symbols, statues of religious figures – but mostly there’s a fascinating array of

windows formed by the intersection of hyperbolic planes, as shown in the pictures above.  The window glass is planar, but the surrounding structures show all kinds of energetic angles!  Those angles remind me of the flying planes formed by ejecta when a water droplet falls onto flat water, shown in the last picture above.  For me, the window array is wonderfully exciting.

Windows at the highest level are equally fascinating and are also formed largely by the

intersection of hyperbolic planes.  They are so cool!  Look at the intersections at the bottom of those pictures where several windows converge!  Love it!

The side of the Sagrada Família to the right of the Nativity facade (shown obliquely in the first picture below) has no grand entrance and generally has a more conventional Gothic-like architecture; however, there are a lot of very interesting and unusual details, like the huge animals that can be seen slithering half-way down the side of the building.

The pictures below show details of these man-sized animals.

There are also plants hanging out here and there.

The left side of the Nativity facade is – or will be – the main entrance, the Glory facade.  It will be the largest and most striking of the facades.  Alas, it’s under major construction and not much to see now.  Ultimately the facade will represent how the soul navigates Death and the Final Judgment, avoids the pitfalls of Hell, and finds the eternal glory of God.  Expect the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Heavenly Virtues, demons, idols, purgatory, etc.

Opposite the Nativity facade is the Passion facade, addressing Christ’s death and resurrection.  And oh my, is it different!  The Nativity facade was built first because, as Gaudí put it, “If, instead of building this decorated, richly ornamented (Nativity) facade, we had started with the hard, bare and skeletal Passion facade, people would have rejected it.”  The Passion facade’s 4 spires were designed by Gaudí, as were the lower bone-like archways.  Gaudí intended the facade to be grim and terrifying, but with his (few) original plans destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, trustees had to piece together what they perceived as Gaudí’s vision.  Not surprisingly, what’s being done has been controversial (in 2008, more than 100 members of Barcelona’s art and architecture community protested its direction).  The overall appearance of the facade is stark – and

contemporary.  Details of some sculptures are shown below.  This side of the Sagrada is

sooooooooooo different from the Nativity facade!  But absolutely arresting.  A few more pictures of this side of the Sagrada are shown below.  I should point out that whereas the

Sagrada gives the impression that it is mostly gray or tan stone, it does have some fascinating color decorations – often fanciful, and typically on its upper levels and spires –

as shown above.

That covers what we could see of this fascinating basilica from the outside.  It’s amazing, yes?  Designed in the early 1900’s but avant-garde even today.  Gaudí was amazing.  And really you haven’t seen anything yet!  The interior is the mouth-gaping OMG part.  My intention was to also show off the Sagrada interior in this post, but due to my enthusiasm the post is already too looooong!  So you’ll have to wait to be blown away.  The next post will be the Sagrada interior; the picture to the left is just a small taste of what’s to come.  Don’t miss it!

I’ll close with a few pictures of the Sagrada exterior at night.

Stay tuned for the Sagrada Família interior, next post!


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