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.