Europe’s most unconventional church, the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia is an emblem of a city that likes to think of itself as individualistic. Crammed with symbolism inspired by nature, and striving for originality, it is Antoni Gaudi’s greatest work. In 1883, a year after building had begun on a Neo-Gothic church on the site, the task of completing it was given to Gaudi, who changed everything, extemporizing as he went along. It became his life’s work; he lived like a recluse on the site for 16 years and was buried in the crypt. On his death, only one tower on the Nativity Facade had been completed, but work continued after the Spanish Civil War and several more have since been finished to his plans. Work continues today, financed by public subscription.
Toward the end of the 19th century, a new style of art and architecture, a variant of Art Nouveau, was born in Barcelona. Modernisme became a means of expression for Catalan nationalism and attempted to reestablish a local identity that had waned under the rule of Castilian Madrid. The style is characterized by curved lines and a profusive use of colored tiles and tiled mosaics. It counted Josep Puig i Cadafalch, Lluis Domenech i Montaner and, above all, Antoni Gaudi among its major exponents, the style’s radical appearance is one of the principal attractions of Barcelona today.
Born into a family of artisans, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) studied at Barcelona’s School of Architecture. Inspired by a nationalistic search for a romantic medieval past, his work was supremely original. His most celebrated building is the Sagrada Familia, to which he devoted his life from 1883. He gave all his money to the project and often went from house to house begging for more, until his death a few days after being run over by a tram. Gaudi designed, or collaborated on designs, for almost every known medium. He combined bare, undecorated materials — wood, rough-hewn stone, rubble, and brickwork— with meticulous craftwork in wrought iron and stained glass.
Gaudi united nature and religion in his symbolic vision of the Sagrada Familia. The church has three monumental facades. The east front (Nativity Facade) is directed toward the rising Sun and dedicated to the birth of Christ. Flora and fauna, spring and summer symbols, fruits, birds, and flowers adorn this facade. The west front (Passion Facade) represents Christ’s Passion and death, with columns eerily reminiscent of bones combined with a lack of decoration to reflect the loss that death brings. The Glory Facade to the south has not yet been constructed, but is projected to be the largest of all. Gaudi intended the interior of the church to evoke the idea of a forest (nave). Columns are “planted” symbolically like tree trunks, and dappled light filters in through skylights.
This bleak facade was completed in the late 1980s by artist Josep Maria Subirachs. A controversial work, its sculpted figures, which represent Jesus’ pain and sacrifice, are often angular and sinister.
Designed by Gaudi, this is still waiting for the altar.
This was the first part of the church to be completed. Stairs lead down from here to the crypt below.
The most complete part of Gaudi’s church, finished in 1904, this facade has doorways representing Faith, Hope, and Charity. Scenes of the Nativity and Christ’s childhood are embellished with symbolism, such as doves representing the congregation.
Viewed from the top, these spiral stone stairways resemble snail shells. The steps allow access to the bell towers and upper galleries.
The crypt, where Gaudi is buried, was built by the original architect, Francese de Paula Villar i Lozano, in 1882. On the lower floor, a museum traces the careers of both architects and the church’s history.
In the nave, which is still under construction, fluted pillars will support four galleries above the aisles, while skylights let in natural light.
Eight of the 12 spires, one for each Apostle, have been built. They are topped by Venetian mosaics.
THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
The church was attacked in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39 ). The crypt and Gaudi’s workshop were damaged by fire. The charred remains of site models and drawings are on display in the Crypt Museum.
THE FINISHED CHURCH
Gaudi’s initial ambitions have been scaled down over the years, but the design tor the completion of the building remains impressive.
Still to come is the central tower, which will be encircled by four large towers representing the Evangelists. Four towers on the Glory (south) Facade will match the existing four on the Passion (west) and Nativity (east) facdes. An ambulatory – like an inside-out cloister – will run around the outside of the building.
1882: Work begins on a church in a traditional Neo-Gothic style.
1884: Gaudi takes over as the lead architect and immediately changes the project.
1893: Gaudi begins the Nativity Facade, which reflects his love of nature.
1954: Work resumes following the Civil War and continues to this day.