Explore the history and inspirations behind Antonio Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece.

Every city has a specific place for which it is known all across the world. One of the most impressive and the most beautiful sites in the world certainly is la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The building attracts visitors with its amazing towers and with its details of design, being indented with finesse, being the pearl of Gaudi’s crown. La Sagrada Familia dominates the city of Barcelona, a symbol not only of the creativity of Antonio Gaudi, but also of the evolution of European art and civilisation.

Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia, still under construction 122 years later. | Photo by Roxana Woods

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família was started over one hundred years ago and was built entirely based on donations (from here deriving its name of expiatori). Started in 1882, la Sagrada Familia would not be as we see it today, had it not been for Antonio Gaudi. The starting point was when the bookseller Josep Maria Bocabella, who had already visited the Vatican, wanted to build a church inspired by the late Gothic style of the Basilica Sanctuare di Loreto (Italy). On 19 March, the celebration of St. Joseph, the apse of the crypt for the Spanish cathedral was initiated, the proceedings being directed by the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. This part of the church was concluded before Villar’s resignation a year later and 40 years from then, Antonio Gaudi would be the Architect Director until his death in 1926.

The original design was a more traditionalist one, based entirely on the Italian Late Gothic style. At the present time, the architecture of this edifice borrows influences from the Spanish Late Gothic, Catalan Modernism, Art Nouveau or Catalan Noucentisme. Certainly, there is a quite interesting mix of architectural styles, but from here comes the uniqueness of la Sagrada Familia, which breaths the spirit of its architect. Being affected on purpose or accidentally by the historical events which took place in Spain (Civil War, World Wars or protests), la Sagrada Familia came back to life like a Phoenix with the help of its artists who respected the initial plans, with only a few modern adaptations.

One of the main features of the design are the four facades, each of them having a complex style, celebrating nature and the Holy Family, being covered by many symbols. At first, the stones of the church were shaped with hands and many of the sculptures bear the fingerprints of the early workers. In modern times, especially starting from the heading of the last Architect Director Jordi Bonet i Armengol, new technology has been used to make the process a lot easier. The church was never intended to be a cathedral (the seat of a bishop), but it has the dimensions of one. La Sagrada Familia, when finished, will have 18 spires (12 dedicated to each of the Apostles – 3 for each of the 4 facades – and the rest of them dedicated to the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and the tallest one to Jesus Christ) and by the time of its completion (expected in 2026 – a hundred years after Gaudi’s death), the Sagrada Familia will be the tallest church in the world, measuring 170 meters.

The Glory Facade, the main entrance of the church when finished, represents the road followed by the man starting from his origins, passing through his problems and the steps he must take to reach his purpose.

The Nativity Facade (also referred to as the Birth, Joy or Christmas Facade) consists of three portals: Hope (whose images do not exactly represent reasons for hope), Mercy (divided in two by a pillar shaped in snakes, between them being the snake of sin; it comprises also a scene of Joseph and Mary praying to the baby Jesus and the scene of the Virgin’s coronation) and Faith (inspired by the Gospels, it represents some important biblical scenes and also some representations of Catholic Belief), all of these being crowned through the Tree of Life.

Designed during a serious illness in 1911, the facade of the Suffering Way (or of the Passions of Christ) was intended to be one of dramatic impression on the visitor, as Gaudi himself reveals: “If I were to build this façade, they had distanced from this work”. Remeniscent of expressionism and suggestive of a collection of bones, this facade was not finished during Gaudi’s lifetime. Josep Maria Subirachs was asked in 1988 to create the sculptures of this facade and the result, based upon some original vague plans, is open to many interpretations. The fact that this facade is facing the West has a symbolic effect of twilight over the representations of pain, death and sacrifice. It also presents three entrances, dedicated to charity, hope and faith.

The Apse Facade dedicated to the Virgin Mary, built upon the crypt, bears sculptures of the founders of religious orders (Sts. Antony, Benedict, Scholastica, Bruno, Francis, Elias and Clare). The pediments of the apse, stylised and elongated, end in pinnacles with the initials of Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and Christ. In the upper part nature is again represented, mainly with palm frond and wheat or wild grass that remember those that grew on the land where the church is situated.

The Glory Facade, the main entrance of the church when finished, represents the road followed by the man starting from his origins, passing through his problems and the steps he must take to reach his purpose. This was only intended by Gaudi and was later designed by its followers based on his sketches. Its design has three portals (mercy, hope and faith), but also a porch with seven columns that symbolise the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the virtues opposed to the sins. Facing south, this facade is lighted by the sun most of the day, which signifies the exaltation of its strong life and joyous spirit. Gaudí himself said: ‘Glory is light, light gives joy and joy is the happiness of the spirit’.

The Sagrada Familia is designed in the shape of Latin cross, being divided in five naves. Impressive by their heights, the columns are designed in a specific Gaudi style, celebrating nature and carrying a rich symbolism, related to Catholic faith and the religious evolution of man. The finesse of the details, reminiscent of natural limestone caves, result in a structure similar to the tree-branches – the pillar and vault structure, the essence of Gaudi’s genius and inspiration.

Although a member of the Catalan Modernista movement, Antonio Gaudi distanced himself from his peers with his unique style, nature-based and organic. Schooled in Barcelona, he felt a strong connection with this city and his many works stand as a testament to this. Experimenting various types of traditional architecture styles, Gaudi evolved into one of the most original, being ahead of his time. Many of the motifs and structures Gaudi innovated can now be seen in the most famous and vivid of his works – la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Cover Photo: Catheryn Cárcamo; CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr) 

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