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Monday, June 8, 2015

Sagrada Familia of Barcelona

Sagrada Familia nave ceiling
Copyright, Jim Lane
La Sagrada Familia--Gothic and
Art Nouveau stirred together with
construction cranes.
Yesterday I rambled on at some length in discussing architect Antonio Gaudi's startling work of domestic architecture, Barcelona's la Casa Mila (also known as La Pedrera). Across town, stands his most important contribution to the Barcelona skyline, La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) Basilica Church. That's not to imply that the two are in any way equal. The former was merely a single commission from a wealthy businessman to house his family in a radical Art Nouveau structure designed to impress his friends and anger his neighbors. The latter could almost be considered Gaudi's life's work, given that he spent some forty-three years (1883-1926) working on it. He was thirty-one when he took over the barely started project, which he superintended until his death at the age of seventy-three. The church is, to this day, still not completed, nor will it be until approximately 2028. When begun in 1882, it was originally expected to take several hundred years (not at all unusual for such religious structures utilizing hand-carved stone). Today, computer aided design, modern construction techniques, and a milling machine have reduced that span to less than 150 years.

La Sagrada Familia as it appeared in 1915, barely 15 percent complete.
A computer-generated look at
the church when completed.
For the sake of eliminating confusion, La Sagrada Familia is not a cathedral. Barcelona has long had a typical Gothic cathedral. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the church as a "minor basilica." (A cathedral must have a bishop in residence.) Whatever it's called, Sagrada Familia seems mostly to be a tourist attraction complete with a museum in the basement, thrilling elevator rides to the top of two spires, and a sizable gift shop as you leave the building...and only incidentally a church. Mass is held daily in the crypt (usually less than a hundred worshipers). It wasn't originally intended to be like that. When Sagrada Família was first conceived, it was the inspiration of a single man, a bookseller named Josep Maria Bocabella, founder of the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph. Once the group raised sufficient funds to begin, they hired architect Francisco de Paula del Villar to design for them a traditional Gothic church, albeit one on a grand scale. For whatever reason, when their architect quit the project a year later, only the apse crypt had been completed.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The apse of la Sagrada Familia. The columns are thin, resembling
trees suffused by light, as opposed to dark, massive, traditional blocks of stone.
No walls, just columns, and the brilliant
colored light of stained glass. The
windows of one ambulatory feature
warm earthy colors (top), while on the
other side are the cool colors
of the sky and sea (bottom).
That's when Antonio Gaudi was called in. To say he "took over" the project would an understatement. He basically redesigned the whole structure from the ground up, gradually moving it more and more away from the ancient Gothic toward his own original version of what later came to be called Art Nouveau (long before the style was actually called that). His design, and later the church itself, have always been controversial. Some Barcelonans feared that another Gothic church of such immense size would overshadow the city's ancient cathedral. It has. Others, anticipating a traditional Gothic style were dismay, even angered, that Gaudi's church was anything but Gothic. Actually though, there are any number of Gothic elements in play, especially inside, the church (above). But they are thinner, lighter, and organic in design unlike any ever seen before. Though Gothic cathedrals have traditionally been hailed for their soaring heights, in this case we have soaring heights, but by using the word "lighter" I mean far more luminous. The thoroughly abstract stained glass windows are twice or more the size of those typical of the Gothic style. Quite apart from the unique blending of architectural styles, the windows alone are breathtaking in their exquisite beauty.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Like no other church before or since.
The Nativity Portal--a carved
narrative and visual texture.

Even the floor plan (above, left) of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is a departure from the standard Greek or Roman crucifix seen in churches for nearly two-thousand years. Gaudi's floor plan is a rectangle, containing within it a cross formed by the nave and transept. But probably most stunning of all is the elaborate carving above the three main entrances (tourists enter through the Nativity Portal--right wing). Whereas ancient Gothic cathedrals attempted to tell the story of Christ through sculpture, paintings, and stained glass, in lieu of reading scripture, here, storytelling is secondary to exquisitely detailed decoration, as seen in the that above the Nativity Portal (above, right).

Copyright, Jim Lane
Barcelona from the top of the Passion Tower--twenty six "floors" up.
The newest attraction of this Barcelona tourist centerpiece are the thrilling rides via elevator up two of the round, pointed towers which have become the church's most impressive features. The Passion façade tower is the tallest. For an additional cost of five euros, an incredibly cramped elevator lifts sightseers most of the way to the top whereupon, if they want to see more, they're obliged to climb the narrowest public stairway I've even encountered (I'm guessing, not more than 20 inches wide). Moreover, this narrow width is a winding two-way passage, as those going up are forced to take turns with those coming back down, while all the time waiting patiently (for the most part) as the majority of climbers pause to take pictures of the Barcelona skyline, or peer down at the "ant-people" waiting to buy tickets twenty-six stories below.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Tourists waiting on the sidewalk below to purchase tickets to Sagrada Familia.
Tickets are 34 euros per person (purchase online to skip the line).


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