I believe that every student of architecture and architectural history should make at least one pilgrimage to the truly astonishing basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (also known as Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family).
It is beyond compare in terms of architectural design, artistic representation, geometry, application of the neo-Gothic, the complex understanding of light and colour, the creation of a nave without the need for flying buttresses and the use of materials. There is considered thought behind sound in terms of the placing the choir on a mezzanine. The spire-like bell towers contain bells that can sound across the city and the ambulatory extends from the nave creating a peaceful, sacred space protected from the noise of the city.
At this time of year, I thought I would create a blog post on the Nativity façade.
Antoni Gaudi (1852 to 1926) was the main visionary and architect of the church. He was not the initial architect and he took over in 1883. At that point only part of the crypt had been built. He completed the crypt whilst imagining a design that would take the commissioned neo-Gothic into something new. His design was to include the creation of 3 facades: The Nativity, The Passion and The Glory (yet to be completed). Rising above each façade and the nave are a gathering of spire towers, looking like natural, woven baskets, decorated with glass, and mosaics and housing bells.
When Gaudi died in 1926 only the crypt, apse and Nativity façade had been completed. He had created the style of Modernismo for the independent and proud Catalonian city of Barcelona. His unique style can easily be identified in the city and in the Parc Guell nearby. He had lived at the Parc Guell before moving into the workshops of the Sagrada Familia in his final years. I imagine this genius, similar to Tesla, was so absorbed by his creative mind he began to lose his connection with mundane reality. In June 1926 he was unfortunately hit by a tram, taken for a homeless tramp and died a few days later. He is buried in the crypt of his genius creation of Sagrada Familia. There is even a movement to make him a saint.
It is hoped the Sagrada Familia will be completed by 2026 to mark the centenary of Gaudi’s death.
THE NATIVITY FAÇADE
Approach the entrance façade of a great Gothic European Cathedrals and you will often see the 3 doorways set within arches. This occurs on the south front at Sagrada Familia. However, one has to distinguish the neo-Gothic version that Gaudi created for this church as it melts into the natural world of rock and grotto formation to house the statuary. There are three different porticos with a different dedication. The first portico (i.e., going from left to right) represents Hope, a virtue associated with St Joseph. The middle one is dedicated to Charity, which Jesus represents, and the third is for Faith, which the Virgin Mary represents. The doors themselves are dramatic foliage. The portico dedicated to Hope and St Joseph contains the portrayal of the Flight into Egypt. Joseph has his arms out to the side with his hands facing upwards, appearing to question their flight. The opposing image is that of the Slaughter of the Innocents – the answer to Joseph’s question. The foliage and fauna beneath the Flight into Egypt relates to those found in Egypt.
The middle portico is the Nativity of Christ.
High up is the scene of the Annunciation. Below is the Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi.
The Nativity scene of the Holy Family in the stable is not necessarily the element you focus on initially. But following the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi, the eye moves upwards towards it.
Gaudi dedicated the latter part of his life to a labour of creating heaven on earth through the Sagrada Familia. It reminds me of the concept of Via Pulchritudinis as promoted by Benedictus XVI. This is the Way of Beauty – architecture and art can embody sacred beauty. In his homily at the dedication of the church of Sagrada Familia in 2010, Pope Benedict said:
“Gaudi, by opening his spirit to God, was capable of creating in this city a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself.’[i]
Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, wrote a letter to artists in 1999:[ii]
Human beings are predisposed to appreciate beauty. The complexity of relating material and symbolism to a present human experience with space, light, colour and sound has the potential to create a spiritual elevation. Whatever a person’s belief or non-belief this church is a wonder to be experienced. There are constant surprises whichever way one looks. I imagine if I spent a year in Barcelona and visited the church every single day, I would discover something new and wondrous daily!
[i] Duncan G. Stroik, ‘Editorial: Benedictus XVI et Via Pulchritudinis’, The Institute for Sacred Architecture, Vo. 23, 2013 <https://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/benedictus_xvi_et_via_pulchritudinis> [accessed 23 December 2020].
[ii] John Paul II, ‘Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists’, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 4 April 1999 < http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists.html> [accessed 23 December 2020].
Stroik, Duncan G., ‘Editorial: Benedictus XVI et Via Pulchritudinis’, The Institute for Sacred Architecture, Vo. 23, 2013 < https://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/benedictus_xvi_et_via_pulchritudinis> [accessed 23 December 2020]
John Paul II, ‘Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists’, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 4 April 1999 < http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists.html> [accessed 23 December 2020]
Sagrada Familia (Barcelona: Dos de Arte Ediciones, 2019)