This month Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece is finally receiving the kind of pontifical attention it deserves. The pope traveled to the Catalonian capital on Nov. 7 to consecrate La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family) as a minor basilica, the highest honor the church can bestow upon a work of architecture.
Recognized worldwide as one of the most original designers of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the famed Barcelona architect considered this church an unsurpassed masterpiece, not only because of its beauty and stature, but more importantly, because it was designed with the intent to give glory to God and to allow man to experience a bit of the heavenly kingdom on earth.
It is a posthumous testament to the faith of a man known as “God’s architect.” In honoring the work of the master, the pope will be honoring the master as well.
“My client can wait,” was Gaudí’s genial response to his disgruntled assistants when delays occurred due to his constant changes to the original plans. Gaudí always acknowledged that his ultimate client was God, who he felt was in no hurry given the fact that the greatest cathedrals have taken centuries to complete.
The architect wanted the finest and most perfect sacred temple for his client. His work ethic is embodied in the Jesuit’s ancient motto: ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God.
Gaudí, known as a “neo-Medieval nationalist” in his day (and consequently loathed by the anti-Catholic Spanish Communists), developed a unique personal style of building, one that has become a defining element of the Barcelona landscape. To many Catalonians, in fact, Barcelona is Gaudí.
His work is characterized by the use of naturalistic forms, and his approach came to be known as the “biological style,” a striking interpretation of the continental Art Nouveau movement. True to form, Sagrada Familia is known for its conical spires, parabolic arched doorways, convex vaults, and freely curving lines.
As in most of his work, Gaudí has created the impression that the stone used was soft and modeled like clay or wax, rendering that sculptural quality that so characterizes his work. Critics have described the church as “a fabulous riot of fantasy.”
At the same time, Gaudí’s masterpiece resembles the great cathedrals of the Medieval age: Sagrada Familia was based on the plan of a Gothic basilica with a large nave, four transepts, and an apse with an encircling ambulatory.
An all-consuming mission
Gaudí himself directed the construction of the church from 1883, at the age of 31, until his untimely death in 1926. Though he began work on the church with a purely architectural interest and lacking any religious conviction, in the course of the next 43 years, he developed a deep passion for the church.
He came to regard Sagrada Familia as a great mission. He became so involved with the church that he set up residence in his onsite studio and devoted the final 14 years of his life to this most important of all his projects.
During those years, in his work as architect, he considered himself obligated to no one but God, whom he referred to as the “greatest master builder.” On June 7, 1926, Gaudí was struck down by a street tram on his way to the church. Three days later he died at the age of 74.
With Sagrada Familia, the inspired architect wanted to create a truly “20th century cathedral,” a synthesis of all his architectural knowledge using a complex system of Catholic symbolism and a visual explication of the mysteries of faith. He designed façades representing the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ. He also wanted to give the edifice a spectacular vertical dimension by way of an effusion of pinnacles.
Eight and counting
To that end, he designed 18 towers (more than any church in Christendom), symbolizing the 12 Apostles, the four Evangelists, Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The tallest of these, the Christ tower, will stand some 500 feet high when completed. To date, eight of the 18 towers are completed. Each was built as a unique spiral-shape covered in patterns of Venetian glass and mosaic tiles crowned by the Holy Cross.
After Gaudí’s death, work continued on the church until 1936. These were the days of the bloody Spanish Civil War. The Communists, who hated all things Catholic, set fire to Gaudí’s studio, which held his notes and designs for Sagrada Familia. Many of the original blueprints were destroyed, but the project resumed in 1952 using the surviving drawings and models. Today, the constructed part is open to visitors as well as the small museum that exhibits Gaudí’s original plans and models.
When Gaudí died, the people of Barcelona popularly proclaimed him a saint. Even though the architect lived in a reserved manner, removed from the world, rumor of his sanctity had already spread.
No newspaper – not even the most virulently anti-Catholic of the time – attacked him. The director of the Museum of the Barcelona Archdiocese wrote an article calling Gaudí “God’s architect,” coining the honorary title that would be associated with him for decades to come.
The architecture of Sagrada Familia is an expression of his deep Christian commitment but is not without civic propriety. From the very beginning of the 20th century, Sagrada Familia became an icon for the city of Barcelona, just as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris and Big Ben for London. After the architect’s death, the people regarded him as a patron of their grand city. Sixty-five years later, the unfinished church is still Barcelona’s most visited building.
There have even been documented conversions resulting from the architecture of Sagrada Familia. The most prominent involved two Japanese men.
One is architect Kenji Imai. He arrived in Barcelona two months after Gaudí’s death. He was traveling the world over to meet the great architects of the day, but by the time he reached Barcelona, Gaudí was dead and buried.
Even so, Imai was not disappointed for having made the trip. Sagrada Familia made such a lasting impression on him that, when he became a professor in Japan, he regularly lectured on Gaudí’s work and, ultimately, converted to Catholicism.
The other noteworthy convert is sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, who worked for years fashioning statues on Barcelona’s cathedral, and eventually became a Catholic.
First beatified architect
In 1999, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Barcelona announced the opening of the cause for Antoni Gaudí’s beatification, the first architect to receive such an honor. The Holy See’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved the Archdiocese’s request in just two years. Such requests can sometimes take decades to receive Vatican approval.
Commenting on the beauty of Sagrada Familia, Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles told a Spanish newspaper: “for me it transmits an evangelical message, very much Gaudí’s style.”
The city of Barcelona hasn’t forgotten about “God’s architect” either. Still considering him one of her favorite sons, the city celebrated 2002 as the “International Year of Gaudí” in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the architect’s birth.
On the eve of the pope’s visit to Spain eight years later, Lluis Cardinal Martínez Sistach, Archbishop of Barcelona, explained that Benedict XVI, in addition to wanting to honor the church for its sacred beauty, also wants the world to see this church as an icon of hope to Christian families.