Judged by almost any standard you choose, Barcelona's Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is extraordinary. Such are the legends surrounding it, that one feels as if one knows what to expect when visiting it for the first time. Currently some 135 years into its construction and still unfinished, it is almost unlike any other church on the planet. We think we know what might be in store for us when we finally get there, but it still takes one's breath away – at least twice: once on seeing its endlessly busy exterior (both building site and impossibly complex juxtaposition of masonry), then again on craning one's neck to look up into its vast interior bathed with light. Almost at every turn something about the space it creates for us catches one's breath. Antoni Gaudí's La Sagrada Familia defies description.
The image of a peasant or pilgrim trudging in from the fields or byways to see the coloured glass of a cathedral's windows in the Dark Ages comes to mind. What impression might that experience have created in the midst of a life that might then have been unremittingly grim? So with La Sagrada for us, now propelled forward by our own endlessly-colourful media age, a building's power to transport us still exists. Even if our perspective is a secular one and we ignore the fact that La Sagrada is a place of worship, this building has the power to make peasants of us all.
The Passion façade
The west-facing Passion façade, in the foreshortened shot above, is where we arrive with our peasant's ignorance. Gaudí wanted this façade to frighten and this explains its starkness and restraint. At the moment, this is where public tours of the basilica begin. Tours or guiding literature help us to decode the mass of iconography on this façade. There is the Last Supper, Judas' betrayal, Peter's denial and, in all, the Twelve Stations of the Cross. There is the dove descending and the risen Christ. There are pillars like bones. The four bell towers of this façade contain tubular bells which are surrounded by sloping vents to help carry their sound to the streets below.
The Nativity façade
Work on the east-facing Nativity façade took 41 years, with it being completed in 1936, ten years after Gaudí's death. This is the only part of the basilica that Gaudí designed in its entirety and which he would have seen almost finished. It is packed with decoration, a dynamic display of exuberance and vitality, introducing some of Gaudí's hallmark symbolism of marine, natural and vegetable forms.
The Nativity façade's Charity portico is closed by two pairs of extraordinarily detailed doors designed by the Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo. Each pair of these bronze doors is 7 metres tall and 3 metres wide. They were installed in 2014–2015 as part of a restoration of work damaged during the Spanish Civil War. If evidence of the way in which a city can adopt a project conceived over a century ago – and still be beavering away at it – is required, it could surely lie in the work of these doors alone.
Here is the one of the other pair of bronze doors for the Nativity façade's Charity portico.
A neo-Gothic footprint
The first stone for the temple was laid in 1882 and only a year later the architect, Francisco Del Villar, resigned from the project. In his place, Antoni Gaudí accepted the challenge of becoming the project's architect despite his having only five years of experience. Gaudí therefore inherited a project whose foundations had been laid and whose crypt was well under way. He could have remained faithful to the original design and continued with what would have been a traditional neo-Gothic building.
In accepting this challenge, Gaudí eventually found a way of grafting a radically different architectural style onto a traditional ecclesiastical footprint. He had begun to make a name for himself as Barcelona's chief exponent of Art Nouveau building design and he found sufficient municipal support to apply this idiom - and develop it in a unique direction - on the city's new basilica.
The most obvious transformation that Gaudí managed was to fuse the forms of nature onto the man-made. Columns were no longer symmetrical architectural forms that merely carried weight, but were stone trees arranged as if in a forest, bathed in ever-changing light, reaching upwards in pursuit of the loftiness of medieval cathedrals. His plan was to have the basilica form a link between the earthly and the heavenly and at 172.5 metres to be Barcelona's highest building, just 50 centimetres less than Barcelona's nearby Montjuïc mountain. When finished, this will become the tallest church on the planet.
Geometry and proportion
Although we can almost immediately recognise familiar arboreal motifs in the basilica's construction (trunks, branches and pruning bumps), Gaudí conceived of these geometrically. His vocabulary included 'hyperboloids', 'paraboloids', 'helicoids', 'elipsoids' and 'conoids'. The best explanation of these terms that I can find is on La Sagrada's own website. (There's a section on that page about proportions which is worth a read.)
La Sagrada Familia was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010. It is therefore used for religious purposes in spite of its being unfinished. The cost of achieving completion is so great that tourism is positively encouraged, so the place is thronged with visitors whose hushed and humbled presence somehow adds to the spectacle. As many look down at their cameras and phones – like modern day prayer books – as up to the vaulted ceiling. It's not just my eyes that are touched by something special. One sees the same on the faces of everyone else. The massive scale and the accumulative detail are more than can be easily captured by lens or pen.
Symbolism, iconography and detail
The assault on one's senses, particularly the visual, is presumably part of the building's desired effect, acting as a catalyst for religious experience. All cathedrals participate in this tradition, and perhaps none more so than 'La Sagrada'. The detail of this particular assault is astounding. Just a few examples help shuffle us in some sort of direction, as here on the pinnacles of the windows of the lateral nave, where bunches of berries and grapes represent the fruits of the Eucharist. Further along, and beyond the frame of this photograph, are ears of wheat for the accompanying bread.
And tucked behind these pinnacles, is a splendid piece of detail, shown here with what might be a temporary downspout, but nevertheless a rainwater conduit that passes through a huge stone sack, ripped open at its base. Is this a symbolic sack of gold coins perhaps, some of which are already spilling out, gravitationally tumbling down alongside the rain? Coinage for the betrayal of Christ?
Here is the centurion Longinus, symbolically piercing the curving surface of the Passion façade with the 'spear of destiny', a mechanical intrusion into flesh, given violent force mounted here on a cubist-style horse.
If you are lucky enough to see this building, be prepared for your camera to fail you. You can always buy a book in which someone else has done a better job already. Leave yourself even more time for an experience of unimpeded sensory overload! Shuffle in like a peasant and come back out dazzled and blinking.