La Sagrada Família

Gaudí's Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family

The Expiatory Temple of La Sagrada Familia is one of the best known examples of Catalan Modernisme and a symbol of the city of Barcelona.

Begun in 1882 under the direction of Francesc de Paula del Villar, Antoni Gaudí took over the project in 1883, when he was just 31 years old.

The man behind the Sagrada Familia project was Josep Maria Bocabella, who led a religious group called the Associació de Devots de Sant Josep, and wanted to build a temple to atone for the sins of Barcelona.

He acquired a plot of land in an area then known as El Poblet on the outskirts of Barcelona and the original idea was to build a Neo-Gothic church with three naves.


However, when Gaudí took over he proposed a much more ambitious project both artistically by applying revolutionary techniques in the style that would later become Catalan Modernisme and by increasing the size to include a 170 metre spire dedicated to Jesus.

Gaudí realised that he would never see the project completed within his own lifetime and when asked if this worried him he is reported to have replied 'My client is in no hurry'.

From 1883 onwards, Gaudí worked steadily on the project between private commissions and after completing La Pedrera in 1906, dedicated the last 20 years of his life almost exclusively to La Sagrada Familia.

The picture above shows the Sagrada Familia in 1915 but by Gaudí's death in 1926, only between 15 and 20 per cent of the building was complete.

Since then many different architects have overseen the project.

During the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, anarchists destroyed many of the original plans and models but Gaudí had been canny enough to build features such as the naves and the nativity facade that would define later works both in terms of style and height.

The current Director of Works is Jordi Bonet i Armengol and planned completion date for the temple is 2026 to coincide with the centenary of Gaudí's death.

La Sagrada Familia was consecrated and declared a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI on 7 November 2010.

Although never intended to be a cathedral, as soon as Gaudí took over La Sagrada Familia was planned as a cathedral-sized building and may be considered the last great cathedral to be built.

Its ground plan is similar in design to other Spanish cathedrals, such as Burgos, Leon and Seville but in common with Catalan and other European Gothic cathedrals, it is quite square as its length is short in comparison to its width.

It has a wide variety of elements, including double aisles, an ambulatory with a chevet of seven apsidal chapels, a multitude of towers and three portals, each individually decorated and designed.

Gaudí's original design projected 18 spires, representing in ascending order of height the Twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ.

At the time of writing, eight spires have been completed.

The temple has three grand facades - the Nativity Facade, the Passion Facade and the Glory Facade.

The east-facing Nativity Facade, which is dedicated to the birth of Christ, was virtually complete by the time Gaudí died in 1926 and is the facade that shows the most direct Gaudí influence.

The western Passion Facade, which symbolises Christ's suffering, is controversial because of the spare gaunt designs including a tortured Christ on the Cross by Josep Maria Subirachs.

In 2002 work began on the Glory Facade, which will be the largest and most ambitious of the three representing Christ's ascension into heaven.

The interior of the Sagrada Familia consists of five naves and a transept of three, which form a Latin cross.

The columns are quintessential Gaudí design, which branching to support their load and their ever-changing surfaces are the result of the intersection of various geometric forms.

None of the interior surfaces are flat and the ornamentation is comprehensive and rich, consisting in large part of abstract shapes which combine smooth curves and jagged points.

Even detail-level work such as the iron railings for balconies and stairways are full of meticulous detail.

Gaudí in general and the Sagrada Familia in particular have always polarised opinion and particularly in the years after his death it was often negative.

Writing in Homage to Catalonia 1936, George Orwell called the Sagrada Familia 'one of the most hideous buildings in the world' and bemoaned the fact that anarchists did not destroy it during the Spanish Civil War.

Similarly, British historian Gerard Brennan said that 'Not even in the European architecture of the period can one discover anything so vulgar or pretentious.'

However, the Sagrada Familia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and currently draws around 2.5 million visitors every year so it seems the genius architect has had the last laugh.

Speaking personally, having visited virtually all of his work, I am utterly and completely convinced of Gaudí's genius.

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