More than 10 years ago a dear friend who’d fallen in love with Spain made Madrid his home. But he’d get animated with any talk of Barcelona and got me floating too with images that seemed right out of a fairy tale. I can see why now. You too have to see it to know what God’s Architect can do. Antoni Gaudi does magic with his thoughts & hands. And while the Basílica Expiatòria de la Sagrada Família (Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) became his most exquisite piece, the city is dotted with his unique creations.
FANTASY IN ARCHITECTURE
Wherever you see it from, however far you may be, this piece de résistance is just as enticing. In fact, the detailing in the exterior is amplified once you walk in and see the ceiling that takes you to another realm. Oh! wait. Before you start reading, just try to remember the childlike amazement when you first saw the magical, glowing Tree of Souls in the movie, ‘Avatar’. You’ll get a similar feeling soon. Also the fact that this is actually a place of worship, has seen many architects re-interpret Gaudi’s concept & is still unfinished, will simply add to the mystique.
I must confess, this post is kind of longish. There is much to say but I’ve also left some for you to discover when you get there. So let me start with what the visionary hoped to create. Here’s a recent model of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, photographed one rainy day in Barcelona.
(What started in 1882 will hopefully be finished in 2026. Exactly 100 years after Gaudi passed away. Only a part of the Nativity façade was completed before his death. What we are seeing here is the under construction Glory façade)
BARCELONA’S MONUMENT TO NATURE ~ SAGRADA FAMILIA BY GAUDI
It’s really a church that a bookshop owner Joseph Bocabella wanted to build & dedicate to the Holy Family. But when it became Gaudi’s passion, he brought it alive in the only way he knew. His inspiration was nature, a fascination that started in childhood. So the roots of his organic architecture, was nurtured in his search & discovery of geometry in the animal, mineral & vegetal realms.
No wonder that he used structure & form to transform the model he was creating, into one that celebrated the environment. To me it’s just as relevant today, what he lived by then. He believed with humility, that nature was the source of all art. At least all that delighted sensorially.
(In the few days I stayed in Barcelona, I dropped by several times to admire the Sagrada Familia from different vantage points. And I always left feeling totally awe-mazed)
Of course I was wide-eyed already, but managed to bring back some memories that held me captive. Here are the ones I loved most.
#1 Animal & Floral Shapes: The Apse gets a Gaudi touch
The Apse which was one of the earliest parts of the church to be built, is Neo-Gothic in style and is made up of 7 chapels. So what’s Gaudi about this?! If you look closely it comes alive in the spires & buttresses that have many naturalistic features sculpted on it. Let’s start from the absolute top. To crown the pinnacles of the staircase that ran on the eastern side he created buds of several flowers made in stone.
At the mid point of the chapel columns, Gaudi also built gargoyles in the shape of amphibians & reptiles from Catalonia: toads, salamanders, lizards, snakes, even dragons besides others. They were meant to say, that being moderately demonic in nature they won’t be able to come in, but still do the beneficial work of channeling out the rainwater.
The interior of the apse is a sight to behold, but that’s for later. As work progressed, Gaudi brought in his very distinctive style best described as Art Nouveau or better still Catalan Modernisme. But for me the discovery was the use of animal symbols on churches. WOW!
#2 Childhood of Jesus & Nature Symbolism: Nativity Façade
This façade comprises 3 doors with the central one higher than those on either side. It also has four unmissable belfries. The doors are separated by two-palm tree shaped columns with trumpeting angels standing over them. These angels are in fact surprisingly announcing the end of the world but look quite spirited and full of life. Seems quite unusual when you are celebrating birth no?! I forever pondered over the deeper meaning of this.
And just in case you think nature was just flora & fauna, this is what Gaudi did in the work where human forms were used. He is said to have recreated the structures from real faces by making casts. Of not just those working in the cathedral but their children too. Photographs taken of neighbors & their families scattered around Barcelona also gave him a collage of features. No wonder they look so life like.
Gaudi & Nature tell stories: His vivid creations actually begin here, in the Nativity façade. The middle doorway called the Charity Doorway, is the entrance to the cathedral and also represents the birth in Bethlehem. This story seen in many churches has the holy family & shows the shepherds and 3 wise men going towards the doorway. You will also see musician angels playing instruments & children watching joyfully. The fertility of nature is seen dancing all around the birth moment in the symbols used. It truly represents the coming to life of the savior.
(Can you spot the palm tree, snails, flower pot, creepers….)
(Meant to be a cave formed symbolically by icicles, it shows Mother Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven by Jesus)
(The 3 wise men visiting infant Jesus. This of course is commonly seen in nativity celebrations)
(There are interesting elements here. A golden and red color egg representing origin and fullness of the universe & a pelican with its babies from pre-Christian iconography. Finally the culmination with the tree of life, shown through a cypress tree that is believed to be everlasting)
(There will be 12 towers in all dedicated to the 12 apostles. The pinnacles will always be colorful and this one is decorated with Venetian mosaics)
#3 Stark Cuts of the final journey of Jesus: Passion Façade
Gaudi’s famous words on this were, “If we had begun by building this façade, people would’ve backed out”. It’s clear that he wanted this one to be dramatic because it was tracing the last few days of Christ. His original drawing of the atrium comprised columns that resembled bones. But what you find instead is a glimpse of hyperbolic paraboloids again plucked from Mother Nature. OMG! By the time I had reached here (the museum below is full of this), I had been through a crash course in geometry.
For those who have seen the Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park, think about the trunk that emerges from the ground. Or even the web between your fingers. That shape is what he was inspired by, when drawing the base of the arches. I was told that the school of art it belonged to as it involved highly moving sculptures, was Expressionism. Apparently one of Gaudi’s favourite artistic movements which he sadly couldn’t bring to life.
(This façade presents the story of Passion, from the Last Supper to the Death)
Re-interpreting Gaudi: When you look at the shape & cuts of the people and faces you know that this side was well after Gaudi’s time. Yet, there are parts of the sculpting that pays tribute to his earlier works. That’s what sculptor Joseph Subirachs did once he started work in the late 20th century. The angular cuts, lines, clear outlines, value to the volume of the clothing are his style. But the warriors and their look are taken without any change from the ones you see on the roof of Gaudi’s Casa Milà popularly called La Pedrera. Hope the pictures do justice to it.
(To the right of the warriors the male figure shown is in homage to Gaudi. Recreated from an earlier picture of him taken during an Easter procession)
(Sculpture of Jesus receiving a false kiss from the traitor Judas. The cryptogram with 16 numbers allows 310 combinations that always adds up to 33, the age of Jesus at his death)
#4 The Show Stopper: Roof of the Sagrada Familia
I haven’t a clue how to describe this except say MARAVILLOSO. Am guessing you get the drift. If Gaudi was a lover of nature then this amazing canopy of trees is the Sagrada Familia’s divine energy. Amazing how elements of the environment are woven into everything. This is really the grand finale of all that you were waiting for. Tilt up your head to see pure magnificence. Gaudi had wanted the church to be supported over a system of columns that imitated the form and structure of a tree. So the central naves are like a forest in which the columns are like trunks with branches. Finally the vaulting on the ceiling is the foliage through which sun rays can penetrate. Magical.
When you drop your eyes down again and look ahead you see the main altar. And the stained glass windows in colors that will stun you for many minutes.
(The columns holding the forest like structure together, are made from materials of differing resistance. Used here are red porphyry, basalt, granite & stone from Montjuïc, a hill in Barcelona)
(The main altar. Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the unfinished church & raised it to the status of a Basilica in 2010, allowing for daily Mass to be conducted for the first time)
MORE YOU SEE, MORE YOU WANT
My jaw drop moments were all of the above, but the walk around the Sagrada Familia was far from over. Sharing some must-not-miss things to do before you go to the next creation of Gaudi. Look out for the:
- Glory Façade: Classified as work-in-progress, it’s meant to be the most spectacular front of the whole structure. It spells out events from Death, Judgment, descent into hell & then Glory. The pinnacles again have a multicolored fruit form crowning them. Just this part is completed and is a pretty sight.
- Escoles de la Sagrada Família: A school constructed by Antoni Gaudi for the children of the workers of this church. Both the walls & roof display a wave like motion, again in sync with elements of nature. Explanations around will show a link to magnòlia leaves that have a shape very similar to the conoids in the roof. I though understood it better when I heard that one could also relate it to the pectoral fins of the Manta Ray fish.
- Museum of Gaudi’s Workshop & Process: This one puts it all in place and explains his inspirations, approach, showcases drawings/models…in short it’s a display of his thinking and visual plans for the Sagrada Familia. When you start visiting other Gaudi creations you will now realize why he perhaps did what he did.
(Just a tiny glimpse of what the museum has. Here’s where you explore Gaudi’s mind and be inspired by the way he collaborated with nature to create his inimitable style)
If you are a lover of details, you must take the tickets for the early tour into & around the Church. You can buy them online from any operator, but do ensure you have a guide or an audio piece to help you understand the little stories behind the big ones. It’s true. One can learn so much about a religion, its mythology & a culture through its place of worship. I’d go back to Barcelona in an instant for an encore of this outstanding artistry, just as I’d go back for the gourmet delights. Even if Antoni Gaudi was your only reason to go to this city, do it. You will love it for a lifetime.