Let me be absolutely clear about this from the outset; Sagrada Familia is a must when visiting Barcelona. Consecrated to venerate the Holy Family; Jesus, Mary and Joseph, for me it is much more, Holy Scripture expressed through breathtaking architecture.
Started in 1882 and unfinished still to this day, this UNESCO site makes a statement on its own. Sagrada Familia leaves you mesmerized by it’s imposing size as well as it’s intricate and unique details. Telling story written on the walls with symbols that are not easy to identify, but once understood I promise it will really wow you.
Barcelona in the 19th century experienced tremendous growth. Transformed after a period of industrialization the city expanded beyond it’s medieval walls into a perfect urban space with the help of Ildefons Cerda (check out my post on the expansion of Barcelona here: http://livelifebcn.com/2016/04/25/barcelona-expansion-plan). This new and continued economic growth gave birth to a prosperous middle-class that became the patrons of numerous artistic and architectonic projects. In 1882 the first stone of Sagrada Familia was set by it’s founder, a member of this middle class, Josep Maria Bocabella. Bocabella was inspired by visiting another church, the House of the Holy Family which was transferred brick-by-brick in the 13th Century from Nazareth to the Italian city Loreto.
Once again the city of Barcelona is marked by the work of talented architect Antoni Gaudí. He was only 31 years old when he initially accepted the project, taking over after the initial architect resigned. Gaudí dedicated the rest of his entire life to the work on this temple, working on it while also taking on other projects, using techniques he learned to continuously improve his design. Over the last 15 years of his life he worked exclusively on Sagrada Familia, even becoming so devoted to the project he had a bed in his study to work as much as he could.
The architecture has a clear Gothic influence, but along the way it started absorb Gaudí’s style, incorporating it to form it’s own identity. Unfortunately, the master only lived to see parts of the Nativity Façade completed (later declared a UNESCO heritage site), but he left behind strict instructions and plans for the rest of the temple. After several decades of intensely studying architectonic structures and Christian liturgy Antoni Gaudí wanted a design connecting Heaven and Earth. He began by searching the maximum height taller than that of the Tower of Jesus (the tallest building in Barcelona at that point) but taking care not to be taller than Montjuic mountain, so the work of Man would not be superior to the work of God. He then designed a structure with three magnificent façades reflecting the three stages of Christ’s life; his birth, his death, and resurrection into glory.
The Nativity Façade
The only façade Gaudí lived to see, completed in 1904 it is divided in three portals which symbolize Faith, Hope and Charity.
The Hope portal is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is covered in Art Nouveau style sculptures narrating the marriage of Mary and Joseph, the Flight to Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents. Elements from the nature are abundant in the decoration. Gaudí has always been inspired by nature, but he wanted for the viewers to feel connected, with familiar details, relating to daily life.
In this detail of the façade you can see the Flight to Egypt, where the Holy Family is led by an angel to Egypt, trying to save Jesus’ life.
Probably the most impressive scene here is the Slaughter of the Innocents, picturing a Roman soldier murdering a child to fulfill King Herod’s order that every male child up to two years age must be killed. As a result, more than 200 children were killed in the town of Nazareth.
An interesting detail to note, one of the soldiers has six toes, alluding to the monstrosity of their actions.
The central portico of Charity is divided by the tree of descendants from Abraham to Joseph and is dominated by the grotto of Bethlehem. The last portal is dedicated to Joseph, and illustrates some scene of Jesus’ childhood, including his lecture in the temple, and in the carpenter’s workshop.
The Passion Façade
In sharp contrast to the Nativity façade, which had a celebratory, festive air, the Passion façade is Gaudí trying to scare the viewer and oriented, heavy with symbolism, towards the sunset. Maria Joseph Subirachs was the sculptor and between 1987 to 2005 he took care to capture all the pain and sorrow Gaudí envisioned in his design.
The group of 12 sculptures evoke the last 12 hours of Jesus; from the Last Supper to the resurrection. Lacking in ornamentation, the stark abstract decoration is hoping to convey pain. Starting with the Last Supper we see Jesus and Judas occupy opposing ends of the composition; highlighting their contrast so they stand apart from the rest of the apostles. It continues with the kiss of betrayal, where the tension and the gravity of the act is perfectly captured in the sculpture. At the side of the of this scene we see a magic square, frequently used in the Arabic and Jewish culture, underlining the symbolism of the number 33, the age Christ had when he died. Can you spot the snake? The serpent symbolizes the presence of the Devil and evil in the apostle’s betrayal.
The Flagellation of Christ is intensely represented by the Column of Jesus’ Solitude, situated in a prominent central position at the entrance of the Gosper Doors, at the same height as those who enter or leave the temple. We see Jesus alone, tied to a column, suffering after being tortured by the legionnaires. The two inscriptions at the entrance simbolize the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, God and Christ. The cane that lies on the stairs is a symbol of psychological torture, the ridicule Christ suffered when the soldiers gave him a cane instead of a staff, a sign of royalty.
One of the most impressive scenes, dedicated to Gaudí, depicts Veronica and her veil. It narrates the second fall of Jesus on the road to Golgotha where he meets the women of Jerusalem. One of these women is Veronica and she wipes the blood off Jesus’ face with her veil; the veil is then imprinted with an image of the Messiah. In the sculpture Jesus’s face always seems to follow the observer, a trick frequently used by Subirnach. The face of Veronica lacks features, some say is due to the fact that she’s not mentioned in the Gospel, while others state that it was an artistic technique to reinforce the image of the Christ on the veil.
The old man on the left is said to be Gaudí himself, to whom Subirachs wanted to dedicate this piece. In fact, there are many other symbols of Gaudí present, like his signature and portrait on the entrance gates. The soldiers are inspired by Gaudí’s other works, you could easily recognize the chimneys of Casa Milà, or La Pedrera.
The Glory Façade
The last façade of Sagrada Familia is in fact destined to be the main one; The Glory Façade. Gaudí designed it 10 years before his death he left explicit instructions and detailed scale models for his successors to follow. Depicted in the Glory façade we see the path taken by Man to reach eternal life. The entire history of humanity from Adam and Eve, parents of the human race, to Noah’s Ark, through to the Day of Judgement, and glory in Heaven or suffering Hell. To date, this last façade is yet unfinished but finally we have a targeted completion date of the year 2026, celebrating the centenary Antoni Gaudí’s death.
There is so much more to be said about this magnificent work of art, but I invite you to witness it with your own eyes. Take your time and feel what the artists, sculptors, and architects dreamed through their long years of toil. And of course please do yourself the favor of booking tickets online if you are planning to (and you absolutely should be planning to) visit the interior.