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The Beguiling Story of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and “God’s Architect”

Xavi Gracia-CC

Matthew Becklo - published on 06/05/15

A 130-year search for beauty continues, and it's caught in a new documentary

George Bernard Shaw was wrong about a lot of things, but he was spot on about at least one: youth is wasted on the young.

During a semester abroad back in 2007, I set foot in one of the most unique churches in the world during a weekend visit to Barcelona, Spain: the Sagrada Familia (or Holy Family). Thousands of tourists wandered around the immense building, commenting on the impressions of wet sand, forest trees, and rock formations conveyed by the building’s design. Each façade of the cathedral seemed to contain whole worlds, and the mysterious crypt, soaring ceiling, and radiant stained glass inside were all breathtaking.

I couldn’t help but be bowled over by the beauty and artistry of what I saw. I was even more intrigued when I learned about the architect behind the church, Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), who devoted his final years to living in and working on this “cathedral for the poor.” After being hit by a tram on his routine walk to prayer and confession in another church, Gaudí was taken to be a beggar and died shortly after.

Still, I was young. I saw the countless figures and images as “religious art,” but didn’t take the time to learn what they all meant. I assumed the construction going on around us was probably restorative touch-ups or minor additions. It was impressive, but I was tired from the journey in, impatient about the wait to climb the staircase inside, and anxious to see the rest of the city. I didn’t understand or appreciate the depth of what I had just set foot into.

The reality is that every statue, every symbol, every nook and cranny of the Sagrada Familia is part of a meticulous visualization of the whole of Catholic theology. What’s more, the construction I saw during my visit was a glimpse into the 130-year struggle to finally manifest Gaudí’s original vision. Construction on the cathedral (which was blessed as a basilica by Benedict XVI in 2010) started in 1883, and through a persistent lack of funding, the literal and figurative damage of the Spanish civil war, and countless setbacks and challenges, various architects have been fighting – slowly but surely – to build the church.

Sagrada, which just hit Netflix streaming, takes the viewer through this moving story, and inside the living, breathing reality of Gaudí’s masterpiece. Of course, with Gaudí dead and gone and many of his original models and plans destroyed, there are countless disputes about whether the church is becoming what Gaudí intended—and this is part of what makes Sagrada such a pleasure to watch. The church, like the Church itself, is a kind of communal, cross-generational work of art, built on the foundational principles of the past, but developed and carried on here and now. It’s not a static piece of history, but a dynamic, unfolding reality as relevant today as it was centuries ago.

One artist, Etsuro Sotoo, describes his attachment to the church and its architect as integral to his own conversion:

I was married to Buddhism. I was deeply into Zen. Because I always do things thoroughly. But it is said that if you are looking for faith, don’t think anything, don’t do anything. I tried not to think of anything, not to do anything, not to desire anything. But I couldn’t forget one thing: the desire to carve stone… I wanted to be a good sculptor of the Sagrada Familia. To be a good sculptor of the Sagrada Familia, you have to know Gaudí. It’s that simple. So I began to study Gaudí, his way of thinking, everything. I wanted to get closer to Gaudí. I wanted to touch Gaudí in order to produce good sculptures. So that’s when I became a Catholic. I didn’t look to Gaudí anymore, because I didn’t find anything doing that. I had to look where Gaudí looked, because Gaudí wasn’t looking to me.

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