The Sagrada Familia

This was, without a doubt, the most amazing and awe inspiring church that I have ever entered. Forget the heavy marble, bland statues and pictures of saints – Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece puts traditional religious architecture to shame.

Construction of the Sagrada Familia started in 1882 with another architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar, assigned to the project. He ended up having disagreements with someone on the project committee, so Antoni Gaud­í took over in 1883 and really made the design his own. It’s easy to forget once you’re inside, but the Sagrada Familia is still an active construction site – the estimated date of completion keeps changing, but the basilica itself seems to state that it will be sometime between 2026-2030.

the altar of the Sagrada Familia

Gaudí died in 1926, the victim of an unfortunate tram accident, and his work has been continued by multiple architects since his death. The underlying vision of the Sagrada Familia, however, has remained true to the initial plan and design laid out by Gaudí.

the ceiling of the Sagrada Familia

Many churches in Europe are free, but not the Sagrada Familia. The project is being completed by donations and visitors, therefore the costs to enter the site are quite expensive. I opted for the audio guide, a highly recommended companion to help explain the symbolism behind many of the design choices inside the building. The cost, though, was a steep €19.30. Unlike the Vatican Museums, however, there is no surcharge for people who buy their tickets online.

stained glass
some of the stained glass, unconventional but stunning

Tickets are purchased with a fifteen minute entrance window and, based on the website, it looks like there are 280 tickets available at each time. This sounds like a lot, but the Sagrada Familia is the most popular site in Barcelona and is one of the highest visited sites in the entire country. Once the allocation of tickets is sold, there are no others available. So… what does this mean? Simply put, buy your tickets in advance. There was a line stretching around the building on the day that I visited and the guide told us that, due to the limited numbers they allow inside and the popularity of the site, the people we saw at the back of the line could be waiting more than 3 hours until they gained entry – if they gained entry at all.

a statue of St. George, the Catalan patron saint

There are three facades to the basilica, two of which are mostly completed and one that is very much a work in progress. The entire building is rife with symbolism and even the way the building is set is very much symbolic.

nativity facade
the Nativity Facade

The Nativity Facade is on the east side of the building and the carvings and details depict the birth of Christ and his early years. There were also carvings of animals, vegetables… basically things that depicted life. Gaudí received much of his inspiration from nature and would even drug animals so that he could create accurate casts for the carvings.

Nativity Facade, before entering the doors

The majority of the work on the Nativity Facade finished before Gaudí’s death and it was apparently a priority for him so that he could set the tone for the rest of the church. He knew he would never live to see it finished, so he wanted to create an artistic and architectural example. Some of the sculptures were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War but they were an essential part of the reconstruction efforts and were restored once work recommenced on the building.

this statue represents Jesus standing alone

I found the Passion Facade, on the west side of the building, to be the most interesting. This facade depicts the judgment and death of Christ, which is why it faces the setting sun. Gaudí strategically chose to complete the Nativity Facade first – his vision for the Passion Facade was one of starkness, with hard lines and harsh shadows. There was still some scaffolding up over the carvings, which was a bit confusing to me as I thought they had been completed in the late 1980s.

ascension statue
this statue represents the ascension of Jesus

The Passion Facade has the easiest to see example of it – and maybe I’m a nerd, because I noticed them on another Gaudí building – but George Lucas was apparently a fan of Gaudí and his work. I saw it in a millisecond, but the chimneys on another Gaudí building (Casa Mila, also known as Casa Pedrera) looked like Stormtroopers and on the Passion Facade there are two soldiers wearing the same helmets.

Passion facade
images from the Passion Facade… note the Stormtroopers beside the faceless statue (which represents Veronica)

The Glory Facade is, to put it generously, incomplete. This is supposed to be the main entrance to the Basilica and the initial design calls for a large portico, topped by conical features and a massive, impressive staircase… the only problem is the apartment block that’s in the way. The guide for the Gaudí walking tour that I did said there has been very little progress on the Glory Facade and part of the reason could be indecision with respect to how to handle the design.

the Glory Facade, very much a work in progress

The interior of the building is nothing short of spectacular. Completed in 2009, it was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and he took the opportunity during his visit to criticize Spain for their laws allowing gay marriage, fast-track divorces and easier access to abortions. After the consecration, however, the church was basically open for business and religious masses were able to be celebrated within its walls.

the light in the interior

Again, the interior relies on Gaudí’s initial design and calls heavily on the natural world. The columns are like trees and the interior reminds you of a forest. It may be a magical, fantastical forest, but the columns branch out like leaves at the very top.

view from the back of the basilica towards the altar

Gaudí was obsessed with light and felt that a harmonious approach was best. The stained glass artist has tried to stick to Gaudí’s instructions, and the effect is breathtaking. The windows are still a work in progress, but I honestly can’t imagine things becoming much more magnificent than they already are.

the soft light on the west side of the basilica

There’s a small museum in the bottom of the basilica which provides a bit more background on the design and construction process and includes some of Gaudí’s restored models. The workshop, which used to be in the basement, and the crypt were destroyed by fire during the Spanish Civil War. Once it was safe to do so, architects and workers restored the models and the crypt so that they could start work.

model makers workshop

There is a model makers workshop in the basement as the construction is still ongoing. What needs to be done? Well, a lot. Beyond the Glory Facade, which is the most visibly incomplete feature, there’s a 170m tower that appears as though it will rise from the centre of the building.

I already know that I need to go back to the Sagrada Familia. It was amazing and I spent a large portion of my afternoon marveling at the architecture, taking in the films and visiting the basement museum. I can’t wait to see it completed and at least I have a timeline for an eventual return to Barcelona!

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