This is the last of a three-part series on the great Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, published in the December 2019 ISSUE arts magazine. Part 3 focuses on his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. Click here for a link to the story. To see a digital version of the pages, click on the image below. For more images, see the photo gallery below the page link.


Faith in the Art

Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece, divinely inspired

This is the last­ of a three-part series on the Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi

The nave of the Sagrada Familia incorporates columns built on parabolic curves.

BARCELONA — “I am an atheist. What is happening to me?” 

These words, attributed to a visitor, describe the inspiring beauty that is the Sagrada Familia, the architect Antoni Gaudi’s final masterpiece. A South Korea Buddhist said he “discovered the divine that is present in Gaudi’s work…and seeing and admiring his work, he discovered the existence of God.”

Whether one has a Saul-like conversion or one is simply overwhelmed by its artistic beauty, visiting the Sagrada Familia is an inspiring experience.

The exterior of Sagrada Familia has an organic feel.

Gaudi’s work was inspired by the natural world. His houses were curvilinear swirls, and Park Güell fit into the hills as if it had magically sprouted from the rocks, bursting forth with flora and fauna (although all the “natural” elements were added by Gaudi to the previously barren hillside). The architect’s work was not just a celebration of nature, but to the creator of nature.

Gaudi was fervently devout and believed that to be inspired by nature was to be inspired by God. He wrote, “Those who look for the laws of nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator.” All inspiration was divine, and the most divine inspiration is evident in what was to become Gaudi’s masterpiece — la Sagrada Familia.

All the photos in all the books cannot prepare one for its majestic brilliance. Just walking around the outside of the still unfinished cathedral is breathtaking. As befits Gaudi’s style, the building looks organic, like it is has grown, and is still growing, from the earth — in fact, it very much is still growing.

The walls appear to be carved out of clay with inlaid sculptures of man, flora and fauna. No wall is like another, and the towers reach out the scrape the sky, as if reaching for heaven.

Gaudi with a model of Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia was not originally Gaudi’s commission. In 1882, one of Gaudi’s former professors at the Barcelona University of Architecture, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, was commissioned to build the church of Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family). He was charged with following the plans left behind by Josep Bacabella, a bookseller and founder of the Association of Devotees of San José, the parish’s alliance of clerics and laymen. One of the lay members was the architect Joan Martorelli I Montells, whom Gaudi had met through Eusebi Güell. 

Montells had strong opinions and annoyed Villar by questioning his progress and motives. When the pair failed to agree on the materials to be used, Villar became frustrated and resigned. Rather than take over the project himself, Montells offered the job to the 31-year-old Gaudi — it was a project that would consume the next 40 years of his life.

In hindsight, Gaudi was the perfect man for the job. He was a perfectionist with very little social life, and his religious fervor was well known. The custodian chaplain of Sagrada Familia, Mosén Gil Parés, wrote, “(He) was a constant model of virtue, of total sacrifice, with the shining lights to which, to our eyes, seem to surround Gaudi with the aura of holiness.” Gaudi took communion every single day at the closest chapel and confessed his sins (mostly about his quick temper). He is also said to have consulted God about work problems and creative blocks.

The exterior of the Sagrada Familia is peppered with sculptures. The image above is a detail of an entire series that depict the life of Christ. Gaudi intended the building to be a visual storybook.

Gaudi regularly sought out charitable causes and worked with Parés to create a string of schoolhouses which Gaudi paid for out of his own pocket. Sagrada Familia would become unofficially dubbed the “Cathedral of the Poor.”

By the time Gaudi took over the project, only the crypt and a few sections of the main structure had been built. The original blueprints called for the structure to be 295 feet long, with five naves, with four of them being 100-feet high and 100-feet across, with the other being 150-feet tall and 49-feet across (work on the naves would not begin until 1987, 104 years after began work on the project. The choir galleries — the chancels — would accommodate 1,500 singers, and the church would have a 13,000 capacity.

Gaudi’s design calls for 18 spires of various heights representing the 12 apostles, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Virgin Mary and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ. Each of the evangelical spires will be topped with their traditional symbols (a winged man, a winged lion, a winged bull and an eagle respectively).

Gaudi’s process defies conventional wisdom. His initial drawings for Sagrada Familia convey more of a sense of the structure than fully-detailed plans. Gaudi preferred to let the building evolve as construction developed. Rainer Zerbst, in “Gaudi: The Complete Buildings,” writes that the drawings are “atmospheric portraits.”

The altar of the Sagrada Familia shows Gaudi’s flair. Rather than affixed to the wall, the crucifix floats above the altar.

That is not to say that Gaudi’s structures were not well thought out. Although the church is built on Gothic principles, Sagrada Familia does not incorporate flying buttresses, what Gaudi called “crutches.” The flying buttresses were needed in classic Gothic cathedrals to stop the high walls from bowing out. Without them the walls could not sustain the weight. However, Gaudi developed the use of parabolic curves and slanted columns, eliminating the need for wall supports. 

A visit to the Gaudi museum offers fascinating insight into his process. Prior to building models which acted as the blueprints for the church, he suspended string with small sandbags which pulled the string taut. In effect, Gaudi designs the building upside down, with the string forming the parabolic curves which, when upright, give the building its strength.

Gaudi, of course, also draws from nature for the load bearing, in this case eucalyptus trees. As a result, the nave of Sagrada Familia resembles a giant stone forest. Typically, no two columns are the same. Standing in the nave is like being engulfed in the forest, especially when the sun shines from the stained-glass windows. The windows lowest to the ground are rich with color and bathe the nave — and the visitor — with light. The whole effect is to put the visitor in the midst of nature with the tree canopy high above. It is a stunningly moving experience. 

A 3D rendering at the Gaudi Museum shows how Gaudi used string and small weights to work out his designs.

The exterior of the building is full of nooks and crannies that feature nature motifs and animals, mosaic patterning, and myriad sculptures that tell the story of Christ. Riener Zerbst argues that Gaudi intended Sagrada Familia to serve as an oversized book, with its stories literally built into its edifice. Everywhere one looks, there are new symbols to find. 

Gaudi worked feverishly on the project, although he knew he would never see its completion. In 1914, he left his house in Park Güell and moved into the Sagrada Familia so he could be closer to the work. There he lived in squalor with a harsh regimen of fasting and prayer. He eventually stopped changing his clothes. A former dandy, it is said his clothes, even his underwear, were held together by pins. He lost a lot of weight. The Sagrada Familia had consumed him.

On June 7, 1926, the disheveled architect was on his way to a local church, distracted, no doubt, by some problem to be worked through, he failed to notice a tram as he crossed Gan Via de los Corts Catalanes. He was struck and sent several feet. Such was his appearance that passersby left him on the side of the road, presuming him to be a tramp. After several hours he was spotted by a doctor who took him to hospital. The next day, the Sagrada Familia’s chaplain happened to be at the hospital and identified Gaudi, but it was too late. Gaudi died on June 10, at the age of 74.

Construction continued slowly after his death hampered by lack of funds and by the Spanish Civil War. Gaudi always had faith that the work would continue. Although parts of the basilica, along with Gaudi’s models and plans were destroyed by Catalan anarchists and fire, the plans were reconstructed and work continues. There are plans for work to be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death, but that seems unlikely. But there is no hurry. When Gaudi was asked about the slow pace of construction, he simply said, “My client is not in a hurry.”

Gaudi had complete faith that the church would be finished. “I will grow old, but others will come after me,” he said. “What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.”

It is important to remember that Sagrada Familia was and is still privately funded. Every visitor who pays their 15-20 euro entry fee contributes to the construction and upkeep of the building. In this way, it has moved away from a mere Catholic church into a universal symbol of the spiritual. 

It is for the artist to explain the source of his inspiration. Wherever the art comes from, we must just give thanks.

Story and photos by Andy Coughlan, ISSUE editor

A gold Christ, left looks down from high above the city. It symbolizes Christ’s ascension.

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