19 Nov The Sagrada Familia in five anecdotes
Located in the heart of Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia is one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the world. Let’s take a look back at 130 years of construction works.
Antoni Gaudí, an emblematic figure of Barcelona
Born in 1852 in Reus, just south of Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí was a Catalan architect known for his original and asymmetrical creations. Following his studies, the young Gaudí developed a passionate interest in the different craft techniques of the time. His knowledge of glassware, carpentry and ironwork allowed him to develop new methods of working with materials, like the famous trencadís, a type of mosaic elaborated from shards of tile and fragments of broken chinaware that are cemented-together.
Gaudí, whose creations are an intrinsic part of Barcelona’s architectural identity, spent the last years of his life quite frugally. His youthful penchant for dressing like a dandy gave way to old and worn clothes in his later years. He led a daily life punctuated by much prayer and overseeing the construction of his masterpiece, “the cathedral for the poor”, better known as the Sagrada Familia.
1882, a crazy project is born
The modern symbol of the city of Barcelona was born in the mind of Joseph Maria Bocabella, a Spanish bookseller and philanthropist deeply inspired by Italian churches. Wishing to reproduce this type of work in Barcelona, he first called on the architect Francisco Paula del Villar. The first stone of this neo-Gothic church dedicated to the Holy Family was laid on the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th, 1882.
Disagreements quickly developed however, between the architect and Bocabella. Villar wanted to build a replica of the sanctuary of Loreto, the supposed home of Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, which the philanthropist refuses. After bitter debates, Francisco Paula del Villar is relieved of his responsibilities. To replace him, an unknown but ambitious young architect is quickly named. Antoni Gaudí is about to begin work on a life-long project.
A seemingly endless construction
After completing the crypt in 1885, Gaudi began work on the Nativity façade. This was a strategic choice, given that the young architect quickly realized that he would not see the completion of the project during his own lifetime. To ensure the continuity of the project if ever a lack of funding or interest threatened it, Gaudí decided to concentrate on the more emblematic parts of the building rather than the functional aspects.
When he died in 1926, only the Nativity façade, the Saint Barnabas tower and part of the outer wall of the apse were completed. In 1936, anticlerical Catalans destroyed plans, sketches and models left behind by the architect to guide his successors, setting the project back ten years. The new architects had to work together to redraw the plans while remaining as faithful as possible to Gaudí’s vision.
Over the following decades, several significant advances were made, including the construction of the Passion façade, new towers and the consolidation of the foundations. Up until 2002, the weakness of the materials used on the crypt at the beginning of the century had forced the architects to focus on strengthening this part of the cathedral rather than building new structures. According to estimates based on modern technical advances and the growth of donations, completion is scheduled for 2026, which will be one hundred years after Gaudí’s death. If the deadlines are respected, the construction of the Sagrada Familia will have taken 144 years, ten times more than for the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
Nature, religion and symbolism
Gaudí’s almost organic style, redefined the codes of Art Nouveau. Just like the Park Güell, the Sagrada Familia is composed of several elements inspired by nature. The vaulted arches built to support the structure look like trees, turning the nave into a magnificent forest of columns. To this symphony of chiselled stone, colour, spirals and stained glass are added many sculptures and other pinnacles representing animals and plants from the Bible.
Gaudí, whose life was punctuated by prayers and meetings with his confessor, planned to build 18 spires to represent Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and the Twelve Apostles. The height of each of these spires is different depending on the relative importance of the aforementioned religious figures, with that of Jesus Christ, the tallest, reaching 170 metres above the ground. This is one metre less than Montjuic, the highest hill in Barcelona, a symbolic gesture as Gaudi believed that what was built by man should not exceed the work of God.
For Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the sense of awe and wonder the building inspires in the people contemplating it represents an artistic expression of the mysteries of the faith. This architecture in movement is particularly reminiscent of an ascent to transcendence by way of a physical, psychological and spiritual experience.
What does the future hold for the Sagrada Familia?
Widely considered the symbol of Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia attracts nearly four and a half million visitors every year. The large termite mound-like structure was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, before being consecrated a Basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. The “Expiatory Church of the Holy Family” is also planned to become an episcopal seat.
Fun fact: the Sagrada Familia was an illegal construction site for 136 years! The developers only recently obtained a building permit (October 2018). In exchange for a fee paid to the Barcelona City Council, the building permit will enable the Sagrada Familia project to modernize facilities around the building, like public transport, in order to facilitate the arrival of tourists. The goal now is to complete the basilica by 2026 in time for the centenary of Gaudí’s death.
After your visit to the cathedral, discover more of Spain’s wonders, like Granada the jewel of Andalusia, a city with a rich Christian and Muslim heritage.