October 25, 2014

God’s Majesty on Display in Barcelona

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Crossing and Dome of the Sagrada Família Basilica

Since watching 60 Minutes Sunday night, I have not been able to stop thinking about the majestic vision portrayed in the show’s piece about one of the most remarkable buildings ever built by human hands: The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain.

The church was begun on March 19, 1882 by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. At the end of 1883 Antoni Gaudí was commissioned to take up the work, which he continued until his death in 1926. Since then different architects have carried on his vision for this grand church in a project that has now proceeded for 140 years.

The building is in the center of Barcelona, and over the years it has become an icon of the city and its country. Millions of people visit every year and many more study its architectural and religious content.

It has always been an expiatory church, which means that since the outset it has been built from donations. Gaudí himself said: “The expiatory church of La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.”

in November 2010, La Sagrada Familia was consecrated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI. Though incomplete, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The project is scheduled to be completed some time between 2020-2030, some 100 years after the death of its visionary, who has been called, “God’s Architect.”

I could go on talking about Gaudi’s amazing tribute to God’s majesty, but this marvel begs to be seen. I have included two videos below. The first is a shorter, contemplative portrait of the basilica. The second is a longer look at its history, and includes a fascinating look at the church’s facades and some of the symbolism portrayed on them.

If you want more, click the “60 Minutes” link above and you can watch their segment. And the website devoted to La Sagrada Familia (also linked above) is a treasure trove of information, pictures, etc.

Of this great building, one art critic said, “It is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art.” One may have to go back to the Middle Ages to find such a building project for the glory of God. When asked about the time it would take to build such a structure, Gaudi is reported to have said, “My Client is not in a hurry.”

If any of our readers has visited La Sagrada Familia, I would especially love to hear from you today.

Comments

  1. Mike,

    I visited Sagrada Familia in 2006. Speaking as a low church evangelical more used to ‘empty’ worship spaces, I found it to be a marvel.

    A couple of things struck me as a I walked round it. First, it is truly a building of the masses, being funded from donations (of course I put some money in a donation box – who wouldn’t want to see the completion of this amazing building?). The second thing was the timescale of the construction: where else in the world, in this age, would you see a building project measured in centuries? The only human project I could imagine that would be anything like this is some kind of future manned interstellar journey. Who else thinks in centuries anymore?

  2. I was there in 1986, when it was much more like a construction site than a building, and it definitely evoked deep feelings. Of course, they were more than a little bit tinged with melancholy — the reach-exceeding-grasp vibe was strong. Now that the end is in sight and the church is in use, I imagine it would be a different experience.

  3. I visited Sagrada July 2012. While I know some of the locals object to the strong difference in style between the Nativity facade (Gaudi ‘original’) and the Passion facade (heavily influenced by Subirachs), I found the hard lines of the latter added to the story. It doesn’t ‘strike fear’, but it certainly does provide a very strong contrast to the Nativity.

    The interior was magnificent, and the it was amazing how things worked together, with colours of windows adding to the effect of the different colours of the columns. If there was one ‘oddity’ that struck me in terms of a worship area, it would be that my eyes were constantly drawn up, and not to the front to the sanctuary. Perhaps a bit of Gaudi theology in that?

    The detail in the building is amazing, down to the ‘inner-land’ exterior column having a tortoise under it, with the ‘sea-side’ column having a turtle under it. Lots and lots of time required to appreciate it all.

    It is already an imposing building on the Barcelona landscape, but its central spire will be enormous. I hope it won’t overpower the building itself. The impression the building has left on me so far means that it will be on my list to see again once it is complete, God willing.

    • Connie, I visited a few years ago, and your summary parallels my experience. I would also add:
      – You get a very different sense of proportion, mass and detail in person. In photos, the nativity facade looks like a heavy dripping/melting sandcastle, but in person, it’s much more uplifting.
      – Because many of the stories and symbolism depicted in the architecture are found in New Testament scripture and theology, the art and sculpture is easy for evangelicals to appreciate.
      – Gaudi’s architecture throughout Barcelona has an inherent playfulness to it, due to the organic shapes and curves. Dr. Suess’ illustrations often come to mind, evoking both a heightened reality and an other-world-liness.

  4. Gorgeous tribute to the Lord and the power of the peoples’ pence.

    (However, it does look a bit like Sacre Coeur in Paris as designed by Disney and interpreted by Dr. Seuss….in a good way!)

  5. Robert F says:

    Such sacred spaces are beautiful and inspiring. I’ve spent some good time in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC. But I always have reservations when I think about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts in the posthumous “Letters and Papers from Prison” when, in the sections about religionless Christianity, he writes about the church deinstitutionalizing its vast properties, distributing the proceeds to the poor, and living in the midst of the world without ostentatious symbols or imposing architectures but simply serving the world that God loves and created. As I get older, what impresses me about the physical dimension of Jesus’ ministry and life is that he traveled light, and he trod lightly on this Earth. I feel that the Church that carries his gospel should strive to do the same, serving and finding him in the afflicted and those without hope, with humility and gentleness.

  6. I visited there in October, and to be honest I have mixed feelings on it. Yes, it is quite stunning, especially on the inside… but at the same time I felt like something was missing. Perhaps it was just the day that I was visiting, and that we visited just after arriving on the red-eye from JFK, but I felt that the cathedral was more of a show piece, than a house of worship.Later that day I found myself in a smaller, simpler, church in an older section of Barcelona that, while not as ornate, was strikingly beautiful in the simplicity of its architecture, and had an air of a place of worship that was quite touching.

  7. I think it would be worth having a discussion regarding the difference between sacredness, art and architecture involved in constructing a cathedral versus building a creation museum. To pragmatic utilitarians, there may be no significant difference.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “You point to something with your finger, and the dog sniffs your finger. To a dog, a finger is a finger and that is that.” — C.S.Lewis (from memory)

    • One difference between this cathedral and the creation museum: the purpose of the cathedral is not to explain anything, which is the primary purpose of the creation museum. In fact, the cathedral itself is an act of worship, extravagant worship like the pouring of the alabaster jar full of precious perfume over Jesus’ head mentioned in the gospels; as an act of worship, the cathedral expresses the mystery of God as it is embodied in the life of the church, and provides a powerful and communal way for the church to give into and receive from that mystery, no explanations necessary.
      The other thing that the cathedral does, and the creation museum doesn’t, is to profoundly connect the purpose of visual art (and architecture as visual art) with the mystery of God; art as a human activity originally arose out of the same matrix of experience and awareness that religion did, and the two were always found together. In more recent times, the two have become to a great extent separated, severed from each other, I would say; the cathedral reveals the connection between the two that necessarily still exists beneath the
      apparent surface bifurcation.
      Of course, strictly speaking, the cathedral has no function like that of the creation museum; but its lack of functionality truly reflects a God whose primary purpose in creating is to express the sheer infinite exuberance of his own fecundity and joy.

      • I couldn’t agree more with Robert here.

        I think we often overlook that God made each of us for different vocations, and walking with Jesus in those vocations is the highest calling possible. We are all priests in our jobs–me as an engineer, Gaudi as an architect, my wife as a CPA. The point is not for me to be an engineer for a Christian ministry, but to engineer as a means of bringing God glory.

        Gaudi was a brilliant architect: the highest honor he can do God is to design buildings to try and show God’s glory and power. But the creation museum is not an example of an architect trying to show God through his architecture, or a museum curator trying to show God through his curating; rather, it is an attempt to entice people through experience to a particular interpretation of a particular passage.

        In other words…Gaudi used his gifts as an architect to attempt to build architecture for God’s glory; the creation museum does not attempt to simply show God’s glory through creation but rather to exist as an argument in an ongoing debate. Those are two vastly different uses of public space, at least in my opinion.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And that is the difference between Art and Propaganda.

          • I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I think you did, HUG.

          • Cathedrals in their day probably also served as propaganda, to proclaim the power and prestige of the church and the Holy Roman Empire. St. Peter’s Basilica seems that way.

      • WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

        So who else heard the concept album Alan Parsons made about Gaudi and the history of the cathedral?

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Wildest cathedral of all time, courtesy of a mad Catalonian architect/artist.

    That “dome and crossing” shot heading the posting is just… SURREAL. Wild and strange and exotic and awesome. Something you don’t get from the big-box megachurches.

    • It’s like the pillars become tree trunks and sprout branches, and the ceiling is the canopy of a forest. This makes sense, coming out of the romanticism of the nineteenth century, but considering this building will be 140 years old upon completion, it will still be ahead of its time. It also has an African look to it, like a mosque made of mud that was featured on PBS last year. It has an organic look to it. Dare I use the term, “ancient-future”?

  9. I was able to visit while on a business trip to Barcelona last fall. It is incredible, particularly when you hear the tour guide discussions. The guides spoke of Gaudi’s humility in the process (strange though that may seem to say, given the grandiosity of the building). The top spire (Jesus’) will be slightly smaller than a famed Barcelona hill because Gaudi said that he did not want his creation to exceed God’s. Also Gaudi said that he was unconcerned with the fact that his church would not be finished during his or his patrons’ lifetimes, because his true Audience has all the time in the world.

    What I don’t think any video can capture is the sheer jaw-dropping experience of approaching the church. More than being inside, more than any one aspect of it…there is the moment when the tour bus is going through the city and you come upon the building. Here you are driving through what seems to be a perfectly standard Spanish city, and then right in among all of the regular buildings and shops as you turn the corner is this absolute masterpiece. You do not really see it coming…you just one moment look up and it is all you can see.

    The juxtaposition between the “common” around it and the sacredness of the cathedral…it actually jars your mind to make the transition when you see it. Intentional or not on Gaudi’s part, I thought that this–more than just about anything else I have experienced–drove home the concept of the “sacred” in the midst of the worldly. All around you is “just another Spanish city”…and then right in the middle of it is a massive monument to God, so different from everything else that you cannot help but be drawn in.

  10. Technical side note: when the video refers to computer technology used to accelerate the stone work, they’re referring to Catia software, orginally developed by the French defense industry to design jet fighters, then adapted by Frank Gehry to help him realize complex curves with metal panels.
    Gehry used it on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He then tried to use the same software to do LA’s Disney Concert Hall in stone panels, but (among other things) the fabrication technology hadn’t been fully developed to machine-cut stone in complex curves, and he had to revert to metal panels again.

    It sounds like they’ve finally resolved that computer-aided stonecutting technique at the Sagrada Familia.

  11. There also was a story on PBS regarding a famous American glass-blower, who made organic shapes which remind me of this.