Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudí Photo: author
Commenced in 1883 by Francisco del Villar and continued by Antoni Gaudí since 1884 until 1926, the Basilica of the Holy Family in Barcelona is one of the most remarkable buildings of the 20th century, unparalleled in its originality and still under construction, following the designs by an architect who dedicated the latter part of his life entirely to its creation.
What is perhaps most magnificent in this building lies in the reconciliation between the spiritual and the material, the fantastical and the practical, the subjective and the scientific. Started out as a Neo- Gothic structure by the first architect, the building evolved in the hands of Gaudí into an organic representation of the Bible in stone. Its forms, rooted in structural principles and in an elaborate world of religious meanings, demonstrate the architect’s firm belief that the material qualities of architecture must be the outer manifestation of a spiritual order.
Sagrada Familia, Nativity façade Photo: author
Initially intended as a relatively modest church on the outskirts of Barcelona, the building increased in size when a substantial, unexpected donation was received: the side aisles and the transept doubled in width, the facades were enlarged and a number of towers and cloisters were added to the original design.
The plan consists of a wide Latin cross with the main nave flanked by two aisles on each side. The transept has three aisles corresponding to the three portals on each of the Eastern and Western façades. A large vault covers the crossing with an imposing tower, topped by a 170m tall spire which is not yet complete but intended to represent Christ. The apse is semicircular in shape and has seven chapels radiating from it. One of the most striking features of the plan is the introduction of a cloister surrounding the church, acting as a protective barrier against the outside noise. As the architect said, it is meant to be used as a processional route for certain solemnities and for praying the rosary.
Sagrada Familia, main nave Photo: Aurelian via Flickr
The building is based on two main structural elements: the parabolic arch and the column inclined along the parabolic curve. These two principles, simultaneously static and formal, are the result of assiduous studies conducted by Gaudí on the stereo-static model constructed while working on the church of Santa Coloma de Cervelló. Here however, for added strength, the inclined columns developed tree-like branching structures before reaching the uneven geometry of the vaults punctuated with large oculi at the top.
Sagrada Familia, inclined branching columns and oculi Photo: Aurelian via Flickr
The church has three façades and on each of them rise four imposing bell towers, together representing the twelve apostles and the universal church. The facades correspond to major events from the life of Christ: the Eastern façades depicts the birth of Jesus and is accompanied by moving sculptures showing events of the life of the Holy Family. This was the first one to be constructed and is probably the most lavishly ornate of all. The Western façades portrays the passion of our Lord and is therefore much more austere and restrained in style. The third façades is intended to be the main entrance and on completion it will depict Christ in Glory and the Final Judgement.
Sagrada Familia, Passion façade Photo: author
Liturgy was for Gaudí the source of beauty in religious ceremony as well as in sacred architecture. By letting himself guided by liturgical prescriptions, he would arrive at the most aesthetically pleasing solutions for his work. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his creation has lately been criticised by certain architects. Nonetheless, Gaudí saw Truth as a necessary element of every work of art and he believed that without Truth there can be no Beauty.
Although not universally admired, the Basilica of the Holy Family has an intrinsic beauty which lies in its sum total more than in any individual architectural element as well as in its deep symbology and religious significance. But most importantly, as the architect intended, it is the place where the Heavenly Father receives his earthly children and sanctifies them in order to lead them into heaven.
For more information on the history of the church and a virtual tour, visit Sagrada Familia website.