The ‘incomparable’ Sagrada Familia

Amongst much other published hyperbole, I have several times seen the word ‘incomparable’ used to describe Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

I disagree.  There are many other constructions, both religious and secular, to which this famous basilica can be compared, and not always favourably.

Admittedly, it is still a long way from being completed, and this picture of mine is not the most flattering view of it, clad in tarpaulins and cranes as it is, but there are several obvious comparisons that we can make.

Four of the multiple spires of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain

Four of the multiple spires of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain

One of the main features of the Sagrada Familia that is often praised for its originality are the open framework design of its spires.  But that idea is not original at all.  There are many precedents for that approach to spire construction, even in Gaudi’s own formative environment.

Just a short distance across town from Gaudi’s Basilica is the mostly 14th century Barcelona Cathedral.  Its multiple spires are similarly hollow and open to the sky in their construction, and they reach for the heavens with the spiky elegance of ice crystals, besides which, Gaudi’s yet to be finished spires already look tired.

The open fretwork of one of the spires of Barcelona Cathedral

The open fretwork of one of the spires of Barcelona Cathedral

Barcelona Cathedral with its multiple open frame spires

Barcelona Cathedral with its multiple open frame spires

And in terms of being the product of the singular vision of a lone genius, Simon Rodia’s hand-built towers in Watts, California, have a vernacular energy that, to me, makes the Sagrada Familia seem clumsy and flabby by comparison.

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, California, hand built by one man from collected scrap, over several decades.

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, California, hand built by one man from collected scrap, over several decades.
(Image by InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Watts Towers Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But the most unflattering comparison of all is that between the inside and the outside of this extraordinary building.  Inside, it is breathtaking.  Built with respect towards centuries of traditional cathedral construction, it brings a new vision to the creation of a sacred space that truly inspires awe.

The breathtaking interior of  Gaudi's Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The breathtaking interior of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

But outside, it looks like an unpleasantly dun-coloured wax model of a cathedral that has been left out in the sun too long and has started to melt.

Detail from the facade of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona

Detail from the facade of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona

Gaudi’s organic inspiration

A few weeks ago I described the interior of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia as ‘like being in an albino rainforest’, but I’m not sure if everyone would understand what that meant.

Gaudi’s supporting columns get to a certain height and then smaller branches fan out from there, ending in overlapping jagged umbrella shapes, creating an organic vault of a roof.  That reminded me, not so much of a conventional rainforest, with its normal sort of leaf foliage, but of a fan palm canopy, a particular kind of treescape common to many areas of tropical rainforest.

Here is a group of fan palms in a rainforest in the Licuala National Park in North Queensland, Australia.  In a rainforest, every plant competes for as much of the limited overhead sunlight it can get, which is why trees tend to grow so tall.  It’s also why the fan palm’s leaves have adapted their shape so they present as much of their surface area as possible to any sun coming down through a gap in the canopy.

Fan palm forest, Licuala Park, North Queensland, Australia

Fan palm forest, Licuala Park, North Queensland, Australia

And here is another shot looking up at the interior of Gaudi’s Basilica.  These great stone trunks and branches have the same sort of upward striving feel as rainforest fan palms, and the jagged panels of the roof seem to be jostling for their place in the light above.

Looking up at the roof over the nave of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Looking up at the roof over the nave of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

I don’t know whether Gaudi ever actually saw examples of those very tall palms somewhere, but they could easily have been his inspiration, don’t you think?

Gaudi’s masterpiece – 3

The windows in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia don’t tell sacred stories or commemorate kings or saints or wealthy patrons, they are there to illuminate the church.  There is no recognisable symbolic content in the windows, they are purely decorative abstract designs, but they bathe the interior of the cathedral in a kaleidoscope of rich multi-coloured hues, especially along the aisles.  The space in the centre of the basilica, and the roof over the nave, is relative calm and peaceful in its colouring, but the areas around the edges of the church are well lit and bathed in colour.

The window shapes of La Sagrada Familia are a modern variation on a conventionally gothic layout

The window shapes of La Sagrada Familia are a modern variation on a conventional gothic layout

The  purpose of the windows in La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is to bathe the interior space with shafts of intensely coloured light

The purpose of the windows in La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is to bathe the interior space with shafts of intensely coloured light

Every strong colour in the spectrum can be found in the windows of La Sagrada Familia

Every strong colour in the spectrum can be found in the windows of La Sagrada Familia

Every facet of the complex interior surfaces of the aisles of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is painted with colour from the richly chromatic windows.

Every facet of the complex interior surfaces of the aisles of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is painted with colour from the richly chromatic windows.

Not just the walls and columns, but the floor as well is dappled with shafts of colour inside Barcelona's most famous basilica.

Not just the walls and columns, but the floor as well is dappled with shafts of colour inside Barcelona’s most famous basilica.

The chromatic intensity of the panels in these almost traditional looking window shapes is quite delicious.

Aren’t they such cheerful and positive windows?

Gaudi’s masterpiece – 2

High above the apse in the basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona there is a skylight hidden behind a kind of radiating chandelier that is a physical evocation of the idea ‘Shine down, oh heavenly light, on me”.  Gaudi was a pious man, and this building is his deeply felt expression of his Catholic faith, synthesising a long cultural architectural heritage of cathedral building with the forms derived from nature which so fascinated him, forms which Gaudi saw as God’s own beautiful creation.

A hidden skylight above the altar radiates what seems like celestial light downwards in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

A hidden skylight above the altar radiates what seems like celestial light downwards in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The fan-palm-like forms of the sparkling canopy roof also radiate heaven’s light into the space below.  Many nature lovers have felt that being in a climax rainforest is much like being in an old cathedral.  Gaudi has captured that emotional connection with the wonders of the natural world and made his cathedral feel like a fantastic forest.

The overlapping irregular panels in the roof of the Sagrada Familia are also textured and decorated

The overlapping irregular panels in the roof of the Sagrada Familia are also textured and decorated

The solid thrusting forms of the central column trunks turn into branches holding up the roof canopy, which then break up into a sort of triangular foliage, rippling out towards the windows on each side. and gently fading away into the outer shell of the building.

The foliage-like vaulting in the roof of the nave peters out where it meets the clerestory windows over the aisles in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The foliage-like vaulting in the roof of the nave peters out where it meets the clerestory windows over the aisles in the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

It isn’t all organic and flowing, though. There is a textural richness to the surrounding structural embellishments that are distinctive and unusual, but which nevertheless feel quite old and traditional, echoing ancient buildings both sacred and secular.

Gaudi's great masterpiece of  building is a wonderful imaginative combination of old and new ideas and forms

Gaudi’s great masterpiece of building is a wonderful imaginative combination of old and new ideas and forms

No other great church blurs the distinction between inside and outside like this one does, not even Amiens Cathedral. Light pours in from all the different punctuations in the skin of the enclosure, and not just through the intensely chromatic stained glass windows – which I’ll come back to in another post.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is more organic than a traditional gothic cathedral, but like Amiens Cathedral it is designed to bring in a tremendous amount of light from outside to illuminate the interior.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is more organic than a traditional gothic cathedral, but like Amiens Cathedral it is designed to bring in a tremendous amount of light from outside to illuminate the interior.

Gaudi’s masterpiece

I have been interested in the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi for most of my life.  His free organic forms and their unconventional decoration always seemed to me delightfully iconoclastic, and they appealed to the young hippy rebel buried in me.

But when I finally managed to see his work up close, in situ, and no longer just in books, I was sad to find that I was mostly disappointed.  Barcelona was blessed with other architects who played with organic forms, and who created interesting buildings far less conventional than those in other European cities, so Gaudi was not quite as dramatically innovative as he seems when you look at his work out of its nurturing visual context.  And his innovative ideas didn’t always work.  Sometimes they were just crass and inappropriate, poorly conceived and poorly executed.

With one outstanding, extraordinary, fabulous exception.

The interior of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona makes it the most astonishingly beautiful modern building in the world.  A big call, I know, but I’ll stand by it.  And not the exterior, the interior.  I’ll show you the far more familiar and less exciting exterior another day, but for now, let me just give you a small taste of the wonderful interior of this greatest of modern churches, which has been under construction for decades and only recently opened up to the general public.

The forest of columns that support the roof over the nave and side aisles don’t have conventional bases, they seem to sprout directly out of the marble floor, dark and deeply fluted like the buttresses of tropical forest trees growing on shallow soil.

The forest of columns inside Gaudi's Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The forest of columns inside Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

As they rise, the flutes double, then double again and again, transforming themselves gently from a sombre wavy form at ground level to a much lighter and perfectly cylindrical form where they stretch up to capitals carrying illuminated decorative lozenges like giant fruits.

As the columns rise inside Gaudi's masterpiece church, they become smoother and reach knobby decorated capitals, branching out like trees above them

As the columns rise inside Gaudi’s masterpiece church, they become smoother and reach knobby decorated capitals, branching out like trees above them

And the columns don’t stop there as if they were merely supports for something else to rest on, they become lighter, almost bleached, and keep going past their knobby capitals, branching and re-branching again and again, thrusting upwards to support, not a roof, but a canopy like an albino rainforest, filtering and shading you from, but also giving you glimpses of the intense celestial light above all.

Instead of a vaulted roof, the Basilic de la Sagrada Familia has a canopy like a tropical rainforest, both concealing and revealing fragments of the heavens above.

Instead of a vaulted roof, the Basilic de la Sagrada Familia has a canopy like a tropical rainforest, both concealing and revealing fragments of the heavens above.

This vast enclosure has been beautifully realised. It strongly echoes the best of traditional gothic architecture while remaining utterly unique and breathtakingly idiosyncratic.

Local heroes

This quite lovely window in Barcelona Cathedral is a mixture of decoration, celebration, and veneration.  The top part is purely decorative, with no religious symbolism that I am aware of apart from a couple of crosses.  The four centre panels seem to be illustrations of parts of the exterior of the cathedral itself, and they perhaps commemorate the church’s original consecration, or mark some significant anniversary of that event.  The bottom four panels depict four saints, who as far as I can tell must have been all accepted as local Catalan boys.

This interesting window from Barcelona Cathedral is a mixture of three types of imagery, not all overtly religious

This interesting window from Barcelona Cathedral is a mixture of three types of imagery, not all overtly religious

These saintly portraits are quite formal and in traditional ecclesiastical style, but I don’t think they can be any more than about a hundred years old at the most, because the second from the left is San Jose Oriol, according to the name on his plinth.   San Jose Oriol was born and ordained in Barcelona and spent his life caring for the sick, dying in 1702.  He was beatified in 1806, but not canonised until 1906, so he could not have been memorialised as a saint until after that date.  Don’t you think he has a strange sinister smirk, like he was a 30s Hollywood gangster holding a murder weapon rather than a cross?

San Jose Oriol, a philosophy and theology graduate from the University of Barcelona in 1676

San Jose Oriol, a philosophy and theology graduate from the University of Barcelona in 1676

In the leftmost panel we have San Severo, or St Severus of Barcelona, who was made bishop of Barcelona in 290 AD.  He fled from Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, but was caught and flogged with a cat of nine tails, before nails were driven into his head, which astonishingly did not kill him immediately.  Left for dead, he was found by some followers, but expired as they tried to revive him.  He is shown carrying some vegetation, because one of the miracles attributed to him involved the instant germination of some beans as they were being sown by a farmer.  Perhaps that is the origin of the magic beans idea in the Jack and the Beanstalk story.

San Severo, or St Severus of Barcelona. Bishop of Barcelona, he was tortured to death by the Romans in 304 AD.

San Severo, or St Severus of Barcelona. Bishop of Barcelona, he was tortured to death by the Romans in 304 AD.

On the far right we have the very pious-looking San Vicente, who was born in Huesca in nearby Aragon province, not Catalunya, but still not very far from Barcelona.  St Vincent the Martyr was rounded up during a Roman persecution of Christians in 304 AD, and was subsequently tortured most horribly to death.  So the legend goes, his faith throughout this ordeal was so strong that his jailor converted to Christianity (and if he had any sense would have kept very quiet about that epiphany, in case he went the same way as his mentor).

San Vicente, or St Vincent Saragossa, was also persecuted by the Romans under Diocletian, and tortured to death in 304 AD.

San Vicente, or St Vincent Saragossa, was also persecuted by the Romans under Diocletian, and tortured to death in 304 AD.

Second from the right is a mystery saint.  I can’t find a reference or a list of saints that can tell me anything at all about San Medin, but he looks a lot less priestly than the rest of these pious gentlemen, and I would love to know why he is depicted here with that wickedly barbed short spear.

San Medin, a well-armed but apparently not ordained mystery saint.

San Medin, a well-armed but apparently not ordained mystery saint.

Evangelical symbols

Speaking of the winged creatures symbolically associated with the four gospel writers (see yesterday’s post), you don’t often see them used outside of churches specifically dedicated to one or other of them, and frequently not even then.  Venice has made a very visible multi-formed logo for itself out of the winged Lion of St Mark, but the others are less well known.

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – not an angel – symbolising the human nature of Christ.  Mark, of course, has the winged lion, symbolising Christ as King.  Luke is represented by a winged bull or calf, symbolising the sacrifice of Christ.  And John’s symbol is an eagle, symbolising the omnipotent all-seeing eye of God.

Unusually shown together, here are all four evangelistic symbols as they are represented on oval lozenge panels set up high on the four columns surrounding the altar inside architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece in Barcelona, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.

Matthew's symbol is a winged man - the humanity of Christ

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – the humanity of Christ

Mark's symbol is the winged lion - Christ as King

Mark’s symbol is the winged lion – Christ as King

Luke is represented by a winged calf - the sacrifice of Christ

Luke is represented by a winged calf – the sacrifice of Christ

John's symbol is an eagle - the omnipotent eye of God

John’s symbol is an eagle – the omnipotent eye of God

Barcelona Cathedral

Admittedly, the tungsten lighting they’ve used to illuminate the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St Eulalia in Barcelona is partly responsible, but even when white light is pouring in from the high windows, the stone that was used to build this mostly 14th century cathedral still has a deliciously warm honeyed tone to it.

This is a gorgeous big, complex, open church, with five vaulted aisles, which includes a central nave, two tall side aisles, and two outer aisles divided up into chapels, nine of which also stretch round the ambulatory behind the high altar.

The broad and high central nave of Barcelona Cathedral

The broad and high central nave of Barcelona Cathedral

A closer view of the fluted columns and main arches in Barcelona Cathedral

A closer view of the fluted columns and main arches in Barcelona Cathedral

Barcelona Cathedral does not have a simple internal structure, but it still has a big, open, feel to it.

Barcelona Cathedral does not have a simple internal structure, but it still has a big, open, feel to it.

Even with white light streaming in, the stonework still has a warm honey colour in Barcelona Cathedral

Even with white light streaming in, the stonework still has a warm honey colour in Barcelona Cathedral

Looking up at the vaulting round the ambulatory in Barcelona Cathedral, you can see clearly how it was constructed.

Looking up at the vaulting round the ambulatory in Barcelona Cathedral, you can see clearly how it was constructed.

Magnificent!  Don’t you agree?

Holy Mary by the Sea

The beautiful 14th century gothic church of Santa Maria del Mar, in Barcelona, Spain, is neither the cathedral church of this great city, nor its most famous basilica, but if it had been built in a city with less competition for those honours, I think it is easily good enough to have been both.

Hemmed in by narrow streets and tapas bars, it has a very simple interior design.  No transept, but a tall nave with clerestory windows the length of the church over the two side aisles give it a very open feel, full of light.  It also has extraordinarily narrow columns supporting the stone vaulting, resulting in a most elegant ambulatory (the curved area at the east end that goes round behind the altar).

The central nave and two side aisles of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona

The central nave and two side aisles of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona

The altar of Santa Maria del Mar, showing the two levels of clerestory windows round the ambulatory

The altar of Santa Maria del Mar, showing the two levels of clerestory windows round the ambulatory

The tall and very elegant narrow-columned ambulatory of Santa Maria del Mar

The tall and very elegant narrow-columned ambulatory of Santa Maria del Mar

Our Lady of Hope

Inside the Mare de Déu de la Mercè (Our Lady of Mercy) Basilica in Barcelona there are a number of different depictions of ‘Our Lady’.  This one is not the main one, sitting on the high alter inside a glass box, this one is much prettier, and she stands in one of the side chapels.

Mare de Déu de l'Esperança, in La Mercé Basilica, Barcelona

Mare de Déu de l’Esperança, in La Mercé Basilica, Barcelona

This is Mare de Déu de l’Esperança – Our Lady of Hope.  Don’t you like her superstar halo, too?