Sagrada Familia and Gaudi are two terms that are inextricably bound up with Barcelona. The sight of the cathedral is iconic to the city’s skyline. The Sagrada Familia attracts thousands of visitors every year. It could well be the most famous building of Barcelona. But what’s the story behind the impressive building? Read on to find out!
Hmm, although not very probably, it is possible. In that case: the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (commonly known as Sagrada Familia) is a church designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi is the exponent of the (Catalan) Modernisme movement, of which the Sagrada Familia is now the most important symbol. The Sagrada tells the life of Jesus and the history of faith (hence the name, which translates as ‘the Holy Family’).
Although construction has taken 129 years already, the church is nowhere from finished yet (completion date currently estimated to be 2026). Because of this, some of the oldest parts of the church are in need of renovation, while other parts aren’t even built yet. In spite of this, the basilica attracts millions of visitors every year, is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was proclaimed a ‘minor basilica’ by Pope Benedict XVI only last year.
The title ‘minor basilica’ gives the building some privileges over normal churches (and it also sounds fancier). It has always been an expiatory church, which means that it has always 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.”
Once there was a man named Josep María Bocabella i Verdaguer, who founded the Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph). With this association he wanted to protect the Catholic faith (and faith in Saint Joseph in particular) from the dechristianization in that time. He received numerous donations with which he bought a 12.800 m² piece of land, now situated between the Carrers de Marina, Provença, Sardenya and Mallorca. On that piece of land the foundation stone of the Sagrada Familia was laid on 19 March 1882 (St. Joseph’s Day). Originally, however, the design was in the hands of architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. Apparently he got in an argument with Bocabella, with the result that Villar decided to resign from the project in 1883. From then on, Gaudi assumed responsibility for the design, which he changed radically.
Gaudi worked on the church until his sudden death in 1926, 43 years later! He became so absorbed by his work on the church that he stopped accepting other projects as of 1914. He devoted the last years of his life entirely to the Sagrada, and even lived on the construction site for some time. In 1926, he was walking on the street, deep in thought, when he was hit by a tram. He died a few days later and was buried in the crypt of “his” Sagrada Familia.
Granted, it is a strange building. It looks like other churches, with its pointed Gothic arches, rosaces and enormous towers. But at the same time, it is so heavily influenced with Gaudi’s powerful imagination that nothing is what it seems to be. Look again and you’ll see how the towers are covered with fanciful flowers, and how the pinnacles burst open into bundles of fruit.
However, the Sagrada is not a random collection of towers, structures and stones. As I mentioned above, the church represents the life of Jesus and the history of faith. This symbology is apparent in different parts of the building. When it will be finished, it will have 18 bell towers, which symbolize Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the four evangelists and the twelve apostles. It will have 3 facades, which represent the life of Jesus. The Nativity facade (on which Gaudi worked the most) depicts his birth, childhood and young manhood. The Passion facade represents the Passion of Jesus. The Glory facade (which will be the main entrance once finished) represents his death: Death, Final Judgment, and Glory.
The same symbology returns in the church’s interior, which suggests the celestial Jerusalem. It also features a set of columns, dedicated to Christian cities and continents, representing the apostles.
There has been some ongoing debate, though, whether or not the Sagrada Familia can still be regarded as “Gaudi’s church”. Sure, he spent a fair amount of his life designing and working on it. But what after his death? Gaudi was known to adjust his buildings as he went along, constantly modifying the details of his designs and forever trying out his ideas with full-size models. The man was so fanatically involved with his work that he made plaster casts of chickens, turkeys and even stillborn babies! Or what about attending a death at a hospital, under the pretext of conducting ‘spiritual research’. You understand it’s hard to find a successor to match his fanaticism or genius. Add to this the fact that the few drafts, models and drawings he left behind, were destroyed by a fire in 1936 (during the Spanish Civil War) and you’ll understand why some people think that only little remains of his original ideas and instructions.
But even if it cannot be labeled entirely ‘Gaudi’, the Sagrada Familia is a fascinating building nevertheless and a Barcelona landmark not to be missed!
The church is open for visits from 9.00 to 18.00 (October to March); from 9.00 to 20.00h (April to September); and from 9.00 to 14.00h (25 and 26 december and 1 and 6 January).
Merely a visit to the church will cost you 12,50 (10,50 if you’re a student, retired or under 18). If you want to take the lift to the towers as well, then you’ll have to cough up another 2,50. It’s not cheap, but if it makes you feel any better: the entrance fees are part of the funding to finish the construction works.
If you rather spend your euros on tapas and sangria, though, you should feel no shame. Many people find that the best parts about the church are on the outside, which is of course completely free to gaze at! So don’t feel bad about passing up a visit inside the church. Place yourself on a terrace near the Sagrada Familia, order your tapas and sangria, sit back and be amazed by the richly sculptured exterior.
Let us know in the comments what you thought of your visit!
– by Machteld De Groef