Sagrada Familia: Antoni Gaudi’s magnum opus

Sagrada Familia is a large unfinished Roman Catholic church in Barcelona in Spain. The church is still under construction since 1882. I have never seen so magnificent a piece of architecture in my life.

The church is the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí whose works adorn the city of Barcelona. The structure is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not a cathedral (which is a seat of a bishop). But in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed it a minor basilica.

The construction of Sagrada Família started in 1882 under architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. But Antoni Gaudí took over in 1883 as chief architect. He transformed the project with his architectural and engineering style, combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms.
Antoni Gaudi worked on this for 43 years of his life, from 1883 to 1926. Gaudi said: “My client (God) is not in a hurry”. He died at the age of 73 in 1926 in an accident. He is buried in a crypt in the church. Less than a fourth of the project was complete at the time of his death. People continue to try and bring Gaudi’s vision to life using the blueprints that he left behind. It is anticipated that the building can be completed by 2026—the centenary of Gaudí’s death.

Gaudí’s original design calls for a total of eighteen spires, representing in ascending order of height the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ. Eight spires have been built as of 2010, corresponding to four apostles at the Nativity façade and four apostles at the Passion façade. The completion of the spires will make Sagrada Família the tallest church building in the world.

The Church will have three grand façades: the Nativity façade to the East, the Passion façade to the West, and the Glory façade to the South. The Glory facade is yet to be completed.

The nativity facade

Sagrada Familia means the Holy Family. The Eastern view or the nativity facade was completed in Gaudi’s lifetime before work was interrupted in 1935. It bears the most direct Gaudí influence. The facade celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ . It is decorated with scenes reminiscent of elements of life. Characteristic of Gaudí’s naturalistic style, the sculptures are ornately arranged and decorated with scenes and images from nature.

It is divided into three porticos, each of which represents a theological virtue (Hope, Faith and Charity). The three porticos are separated by two large columns, and at the base of each lies a turtle (one to represent the land and the other the sea). These are symbols of time as something set in stone and unchangeable. In contrast to the figures of turtles and their symbolism, two chameleons, which are symbolic of change, can be found at either side of the façade.

 The Tree of Life rises above the door of Jesus in the portico of Charity. Four towers complete the façade and are each dedicated to a saint .

The Tree of Life

The interior of the church is equally spectacular. The church is a five-naved basilica. The central nave rises above the others significantly. Gaudi’s genius and imagination runs wild. I do not understand architecture but without weight bearing columns, the pillars and arches transform the interior into a forest of palm trees. Light streaming in through the windows makes for a stunning sight.

The rain forest like interior of the church shows columns designed like the trunks of trees

The Western end of the church depicts the austere Passion facade. It faces the setting sun, and is symbolic of the death of Christ. The Passion façade was built according to the design that Gaudi created in 1917. The construction began in 1954, and the towers, built over the elliptical plan, were finished in 1976.

The skull-like Passion facade is as stark and sombre, as the Nativity facade is playful. It tells the story of Christ’s torture and crucification. It is especially striking for its spare, gaunt, tormented characters, including emaciated figures of Christ being scourged at the pillar; and Christ on the Cross. They aimed to give a rigid, angular form to provoke a dramatic effect. Gaudí intended for this façade to strike fear into the onlooker. He wanted to show the severity and brutality of Christ’s sacrifice. These controversial designs are the work of Josep Maria Subirachs.

The Glory façade, on which construction began in 2002, will be the largest and most monumental of the three facades and will represent one’s ascension to God. It will also depict various scenes such as Hell, Purgatory, and will include elements such as the Seven deadly sins and the Seven heavenly virtues. It will be the principal façade and will offer access to the central nave.

Describing Sagrada Família, art critic Rainer Zerbst said “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art”. No visit to Barcelona is complete without spending a few hours at the Sagrada Familia.

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