Why Gaudí’s Sagrada Família is a cathedral for our times
Barcelona’s magnificent basilica, consecrated this month by the pope, is the perfect space for a culture suspicious of institutions The Sagrada Familia, photographed during the solemn mass and consecration celebrated by the Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday 7 November 2010 during his two-day visit to Spain. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), architect of the awesome basilica consecrated by Pope Benedict in Barcelona on Sunday 7 November, didn’t think he was building Europe’s last great Catholic cathedral. The Sagrada Família, he said, was the first of the new Christian era. He built it to speak to a post-industrial, secularised world, to heal the divide between faith and reason, truth and freedom, art and God; and to do so not through a restatement of the past but starting from creation itself.
We have long been familiar with the Sagrada’s towers and facades, the way the building erupts from Barcelona’s suburbs, reaching for the skies. But on the day it was consecrated, thanks to a spidercam deftly directed by the local television station, TV3, millions saw for the first time the recently-completed interior – a thrilling petrified forest of light, colour and space. The Basilica’s modernity, as Pope Benedict observed in his homily, lies in the way Gaudí internalises what is usually left outside – plants, animals, nature – while putting on its outside what is normally confined within church walls: altarpieces and sculptures narrating the Christian salvation story.
In an age when “modern” art strains to reject and disconcert for its own sake, Gaudí’s originality stands out as far more radical and authentic. Focussing intensely on the forms of nature, he discovered that true beauty lies in uncovering and being faithful to those forms, rather than striving after beauty, which results merely in artifice. Through dozens of 65ft-high tropical trunks rising up to a forest-like canopy through which the sun’s rays pour and dance across the walls, the Sagrada’s interior creates a heavenly vision of the New Jerusalem – not a ponderous, grandiloquent, statement of a powerful institution, but a glimpse of God, something free and light and generous and intensely beautiful, a space fit for soaring spirits.
Gaudí’s own life is a very modern one. He ignored his Catholic faith until he was 42, by which time he was a famous and well-paid architect, something of a dandy courted by wealthy Barcelona industrialists to design their show-off houses. He was the leading light of the Catalan movement of arts and crafts known as the Renaixença, and knew he was far ahead of his generation. But he was knocked off course by being rejected by a woman he loved, and began to explore – in a very modern, considered way, in full knowledge of the alternatives – the beliefs in which he had until then shown little interest. Over the next 30 years, he shed his wealth, spent more and more time in prayer, gave up meat and alcohol, put his money into improving the lot of the poor of his barrio, and dedicated himself entirely to the Sagrada Família, convinced that God had called him to this great task. He died, after being run over by a tram aged 72, a beloved pauper, lauded as genius and admired as a saint.
The church is now on its way to officially declaring him one, not because of his magnificent creation – although, of course, the Sagrada cannot be separated from his faith – but because of the evidence and fruits of a life geared to God. Unlike other geniuses such as Picasso (who loathed Gaudí for ideological reasons but was indebted to his art) or Mozart, Gaudí never burned out. He understood that artistic genius was a powerful gift, which led to a reckless ego; he actively compensated for that gift through penance and expiation, self-sacrifice and giving. Convinced that God is revealed first through His creation, his faith led his genius and technical prowess ever deeper into the origins of beauty, not away from them. At a time when technological progress leads to arrogance, Gaudí offers leaves and lizards, eggs and branches, and asks us to look again.
That is why Gaudí the saint and his great Basilica are the perfect signposts for the contemporary church to place in the path of the modern seeker. And they offer a way out of the wounds of Spain’s civil war, still seen in the tragic division between left and right, Catholics and anticlericals. Gaudí was a catalanista, arrested in the 1920s for refusing to speak Castilian to an army officer. Catalan nationalism has always been close to the local church, and the sight of the pope using Catalan at the mass at the Sagrada Família, symbol of Catalan pride, pours balm on old wounds.
Gaudí’s great basilica has been built, mostly, from the entrance fees from Europe’s agnostic tourists: it attracts 2 million visitors a year, more than the Prado and the Alhambra. They come, in the age of The Da Vinci Code, curious about symbols and signs, and find that the Sagrada Família, perhaps the greatest attempt since Dante to condense the whole of Christian teaching into a single work, is packed with them. Yet there is nothing opaque about it. Unlike St Peter’s in Rome, which conceals and intimidates as much as it gives glory, Barcelona’s basilica opens up in its entirety the moment you step inside – the perfect space for a culture suspicious of institutions, but which is restless for something greater than ourselves.