I went to Barcelona by chance. My brother’s wife and daughters had been delighted by this elegant city in northern Spain and especially by the basilica of the Holy Family. They convinced my brother that he too needed to see the city and he asked me to join him on a visit.
Naturally I knew of the church and of Pope Benedict’s enthusiasm for it. One of the architects of the new Benedict XVI Retreat Centre of Sydney archdiocese had also written an article of commendation. While I shared many of their artistic judgments, I was put off by photos of the basilica’s exterior. It all seemed a bit loopy: Picasso in Hollywood. But I knew nothing of the basilica’s interior (and not much more, in fact, about the exterior). I was quite prepared to be unimpressed.
My visit completely changed my opinion as the basilica is a work of genius. This place of worship speaks of God to the people of today (and tomorrow) more eloquently then any church I know. Catholic symbols are everywhere, teaching about Christ, the Church, light and life. Already 3,200,000 paying tourists visit each year, so enabling the construction to be continued.
The church is the product of Spain’s turbulent religious history, and during its comparatively brief lifespan it has already been damaged and closed for a time by anti-Catholic violence.
In the 19th century, Barcelona was a center for industrial development when Spain changed from being a colonial and largely rural society. As the democratic, anti-religious and violent forces unleashed by the French Revolution of 1789 spread across Europe, the Spanish state, in 1836, expropriated all the Church’s lands and assets.
In the consequent spiritual crisis the rise of militant unbelief was strongly contested by many Catholic priests and people. The Association of the Devotees of St Joseph was founded in 1866 by the bookseller and philanthropist Josep Maria Bocabella, and grew strongly to a membership of half a million. In 1878 they decided to build an expiatory temple of prayer and worship dedicated to the Holy Family. Work began in 1882, inspired in part by devotion to the Holy House of Nazareth, which was brought to Loreto, in Italy, in the 13th century, probably by Crusaders.
The basilica is not Barcelona’s cathedral and no diocesan or government money has been used. From the beginning, the building was a quixotic exercise. The Sagrada Família’s first architect, Francisco del Villar, persuaded Boccabella not to build a replica of the Loreto shrine, but to follow the then fashionable Neo-Gothic style of the great medieval cathedrals.
Financial and artistic differences provoked del Villar’s resignation, and in 1883 Boccabella appointed the 31-year-old Antoni Gaudí as the new project architect. He remained in this post for 43 years until his death in 1926.
Much of the crypt had been built and Gaudí amended this design only slightly. But his creative genius was soon apparent in a radically different apse, cloister and Nativity entrance façade, and in the detailed construction plans for a startlingly different church he left for his successors to complete.
During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s the Communists destroyed plans (but not all of them), damaged models and halted work, which did not resume until 1954. The church was originally isolated in the countryside but is now surrounded by shops and apartments. Some of those will be removed eventually to provide a more fitting environment and, especially, a spacious entrance square.
Books will continue to be written about the Sagrada Família, and it is difficult to know where to start in describing so many strange and beautiful features. The church is huge and high, capable of holding 14,000 worshippers, and has space in the elevated choir stalls for 1,200 singers. The main tower will be 560ft high, lower than God’s handiwork of neighbouring Montjuic, a hill that is 650ft high.
Every generation of church builders wants to offer the best of its skills to the one good God and this generally – perhaps always – should mean that they give something from their age and nation, which goes beyond what earlier generations contributed.
Spain has many traditionally beautiful buildings and monuments. But Picasso was a Spaniard, as was Joan Miró, and Gaudí. Gaudí was deeply Catholic, but Spanish to his core.
One is never tempted to think of this basilica as a museum. While it is rooted in the Neo-Gothic style, it belongs to tomorrow even more than today. Our contemporaries, especially if they are non-religious, are geared to the future, hoping that technical and economic progress will continue. They do not look back to Christ’s coming as the turning point of history, or to any other earlier event. They like novelty and innovation. This basilica speaks to them, because it tells the ancient Christian story in a new way.
The 1,700 years of Christian civilization and the earlier 300 years of intermittent persecution, often repeated, are the essential launching pad for lessons from the Bible, the liturgy and nature itself in this church.
No aspect is merely a tired representation from the past, like some holy pictures. Each tradition is respected, recognizable, but developed and changed. Unusually, the decorations are multi-colored; we find no straight lines, but rather twists and turns like tree trunks.
Light is everywhere, illuminating the powerful stained-glass windows with their abstract patterns and bright, strong colours. The building is surrounded by fluted columns, twisted in different directions at each end, often with a thinner waist or centre point.
Above the main altar a huge figure of the suffering and crucified Christ, with his legs almost bent double, arms painfully extended and head lifted to the heavens, dominates the church’s interior. Over it all is an almost traditional baldacchino, a symbol taken from the tent held over a Jewish couple as they make their marriage vows. This is found in many ancient churches (and St Peter’s in Rome) and reminds us of Christ’s marriage to his Church community. The four porphyry columns represent the Gospels and the pillars the 12 Apostles.
Gaudí wanted to create a mystical forest around the main altar with light coming though the columns, vaults and roof in a hundred different ways as in an ancient forest canopy. He was striving to evoke the transcendent, to induce awe and a call to worship, to encourage meditation and deep prayer.
Gothic churches, more than any others, with their height and light are designed to raise our hearts and minds to God.
Gaudí takes this to a new level, far beyond anything I expected or had experienced in any of the many beautiful and prayerful churches I have visited. I felt overwhelmed; not by fear, but by the magnificence and holiness. I realised this was a house of God.
The central interior is more than an advertisement for the paranormal, or even for the supernatural. It is even more than a sermon, because good sermons can be boring sometimes. It is a call to conversion and an introduction into the Christian mysteries as they are lived and understood by Latin Rite Catholics.
The roof of Sagrada Família is also a bit like a forest, covered by 18 towers divided into four types. Naturally, the Jesus tower is highest, followed by the four towers of the Evangelists, the tower to the Virgin Mary above the apse, which is slightly lower, and then the 12 bell towers of the Apostles, surrounding the building and divided into three groups above the three entries.
Each spire is covered in colored glazed ceramic work from the island of Murano in northern Italy. The spires resemble a collection of exotic postcards or sporting trophies, but all are reaching to the heavens.
Three decorated façades, elaborate with many different figures, surround the entrances and are dedicated to the Nativity, the Passion and the Glory. A covered cloister will eventually surround the church, separating the outside secular world from the sacred.
The Nativity façade was started in the 1890s and has three porticos dedicated to a theological virtue and a member of the Holy Family. Jesus represents love or charity, topped by the tree of life, Joseph represents hope and the Virgin Mary represents faith. Scenes from Jesus’s early years are depicted in beautiful, traditional figures, reassuring in their piety and realism. The surrounds to the figures are lush and cluttered, but churchgoers then and now love the imagery.
The Passion façade is different: sinister and angular, capturing evil and violence. Gaudí delayed starting its construction, because he knew it would be unpopular. Street protests accompanied its birth.
The figures are severe, often linear, square headed, grim and forbidding. The avant-garde sculptor Josep Subirachs was commissioned to complete and fill out Gaudí’s sketches, and he brought home to us the brutality and reality of Christ’s suffering. The Resurrection only came later. This entrance is confrontational but brilliant teaching.
The construction of the Glory façade, which will become the main entrance, only began in 2002. The depictions of the Four Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – with upside-down balloon-like clouds representing the Creed, seven doors representing the sacraments, and inscribed columns representing the seven deadly sins and the opposing Christian virtues provoke puzzlement as well as reassurance. I am not sure how effectively the unusual imagery will speak to people, or how well it spoke to me.
Everywhere in the Western world the family is under pressure from the revolution produced by the innovation of the Pill. Divorces abound and more are choosing not to marry and not to remarry. A basilica dedicated to the Holy Family which emphasises the role of Joseph as well as Mary is providential.
One of the guides told us that many of the visitors finish their tour saying the basilica really has given them something to think about. That was certainly true for me.
Cardinal George Pellis the former Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, and is Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican. This article was originally published in the Catholic Herald Magazineas is reprinted here with kind permission.