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.