La Sagrada Familia

Not to admire the Sagrada Familia, is an unforgivable offence among art and architecture enthusiasts. Gaudi was well aware that the project could never be completed within his lifetime, and yet, he dedicated his best years to it. If you are ever lucky enough to get the chance to do it, the sheer size of his work will strike you once you step into the main chamber!

Published Categorized as Specials
Sagrada Família amidst the urban Barcelona
Sagrada Família across the Barcelone skyline.

Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) – Architect

The first thing that springs to mind when the city of Barcelona is mentioned, is Lio Messi, and Football Club Barcelona. Draped in the blue and red of the Blaugrana, Messi plies his trade on a football pitch. The ball glued to his feet, shoulders drooped, legs slightly bent, and equipped with a lethal left foot, he has time and again wreaked havoc on a rectangular patch fondly named the ‘Nou Camp’. Every week, millions of people tune in to their teles and streaming services to watch a bit of a Messi Magic, as he carves and weaves his way through pockets of space that shouldn’t even exist!

But we are not here to talk about football, are we? Rather, what we should be talking about, is a building some miles down the road that at first sight, might feel like a bit awkward to some! So, let’s take you there…

Without further ado, exit the Nou Camp on the Avenue de Joan XIII and head straight for the Plaça de Pius. As you take a right on the Avenue Diagonal and make your way east, you’ll catch a glimpse of the riches Barcelona has to offer. The Eixample district is a masterpiece in town planning. The shaved corners that help in increasing the parking space, the panots, the unique sense of balance and orderliness, et all…

But what lies in wait at end of this journey, is incomparable to anything else.

Therefore, head for the exit on the Carrer del Rosselió from the main highway. Continue your journey in the direction of your nose and take a right on the Carrer de Sardenya. And Voila, we’ve arrived!

Given that, after its completion, it is going to be the tallest building in Barcelona, you can’t possibly miss the structure I’ve brought you so far to gaze upon. La Sagrada Familia should now be visible in the distance!

(All in all, it’s a 15-16 min ride. More importantly, this is the cue for me to switch the role from your Uber driver, to a tour guide…)

Let’s do a short introductory brief then, shall we?

Magnificent view of the Sagrada Família Cathedral from outside
Gaudi devoted the last 12 years of his life entirely to designing Sagrada Família.

Sagrada Familia is the most notable and well-known work of the Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, who spent almost 43-years on refining the design and construction of every nook and cranny of the basilica. Gaudi made extensive usage of catenary, and coupled it with his unique organic style inspired by nature and god. The project is not officially funded by any government, and is solely dependent on donations and gate-receipts!

A front view of the Passion Façade
Sagrada Familia, Passion Façade

The route we’ve followed, will result in us facing the Passion Façade when we get off, which (as the name would suggest) pays homage to the Passion chapter in the life of Jesus. Passion is the circumstance of Jesus Christ’s death, the harshness he faced at the time of his crucifixion, and the brutality of his murderers.

The façade is shaped in the form of a ribcage, and is smeared with Christian symbols and ciphers. Popular themes that stand out immediately are the Kiss of Judas, Jesus on a cross, the Apostle, Pilate washing his hands (which was an indication that the decision to put Jesus to death will not be overturned). The entire façade is bare rock and faces west, which is also the side where the sun sets. The shadows and the interplay of twilight and rock heightens the overall effect at sunset resulting in a very humbling experience.

The general entrance to the church is from the Nativity Façade though, and we’ll have to circle around in order to access it.

Nativity is the period in Christ’s life that deals with his birth and the time he spent in Bethlehem, Judea. It is the only façade that Gaudi saw completed in his life, and therefore, is the true emblem of his style. The Nativity façade faces the rising sun to the east, a symbol for the birth of Christ. It seems fitting then that we’ll be beginning our journey here.

At first sight, the Nativity façade seems like an anthill, or a termite mound! The entire façade bears semblance to Mother Nature, and is covered in sculptures and symbols from the nativity period. In the center is a huge crèche depicting Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Christ-child. The sculptures and figures include animals and plants including a pony (representing hardwork), a dove (representing peace), and cypresses (representing eternal life) among others. Chameleons and turtles represent change and permanence respectively.

Gaudi when commenting on his inspiration for such a quirky and unearthly design remarked:


“In returning to the original, I discovered originality.”

– Antoni Gaudi

In Gaudi’s eyes, only nature is original. Everything else is a forgery.

There’s a group of angels blowing their trumpets, a symbol of heraldry, and of times to come by. A lonesome angel is playing a harp right next to it. Statues of the Madonna are present galore. It seems as though the story of the childhood of the prophet is set in stone on the face of the façade!

An extremely vital event from the story of the birth of the Christ-child is the visit of the Magi, and is also depicted here, as Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior bring Myrrh, Gold, and Frankincense. A snake eating an apple sits at the hem of Jesus’ genealogy column, representing the expulsion of mankind from the Garden of Eden.

The third and the last façade is the Glory façade, which is still under construction. Access to it is restricted, but upon its completion, it will be a representation of Jesus ascending to Kingdom Come and looking down at Earth in the company of God himself. A total of eighteen spires on the roof each represent the Twelve Apostles, the Four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and the tallest one standing at a colossal 172-meters will represent Jesus Christ himself.

Keep in mind the fact that, to lay down all the details of the structure in a single book is a task nigh impossible, let alone accomplishing that in the span of an article! You’ll therefore, be well advised to appreciate what I am able to cram here…

With that said, and the exterior explored, it’s time for us to head inside, the place where the real magic is at!

The floor plan for the basilica is borrowed from the image of a Latin cross and houses five aisles. Though broadly, its architectural style is placed in the category of Art Nouveau and Catalan Modernisme, no description suits the basilica better than ‘Organic’ and ‘Inspired by Nature’. The design of the church (both the exterior and the interior) is such that it cannot be described properly within the established confines of artistic styles due to the eccentric nature of its architect. The problem is further compounded by Gaudi’s belief that:


“The straight line belongs to man, the curved one to God.”

– Antoni Gaudi

Both his contemporaries and modern day admirers have heaped praise on Gaudi’s ‘ruthless audacity’, not only in terms of aesthetics, but for the technical wit and courage reflected in the design as well.

As you enter the nave, the most noticeable thing is probably the stained glass windows. These are no ordinary windows, mind you. Gaudi’s attention to detail comes to life here. He deliberately placed the cooler shades (blue and green) on the eastern side, which receives the most sunlight. The overall effect is to lower the temperature and the intensity of light during the daylight hours, keeping the thermal readings mild.

On the western side are the warmer hues (yellow, orange, and red), as this side receives less light. Even with all the spires and towers, Gaudi still managed an opening in the ceiling which provides unfiltered daylight. All this light from all its varied sources disperses and shimmers, changing colors throughout the day.

It’s the light that paints the walls, the columns, and the rest of the interior. From the outside, it looks like a dark and bizarre church and people don’t really expect this much natural luminosity, which makes the experience all the more exciting. It’s like watching a ballet, where the interplay of light takes the center stage in place of a human form! This is what Gaudi meant by original. Untouched and uncontaminated by human interaction.

When Pope Benedict consecrated the church in 2010, he declared that ‘This is a church built inside out’, an allusion to the fact in places of worship, usually the sculptures and figurines are found indoors, with plenty of light outside!

La Sagrada Familia - Three columns of stained glass windows illuminated by sunlight
The Catenary arches allow the inclusion of massive windows in the walls of the Sagrada Família.

It only takes common sense to understand that, as you leave space for the windows, what you’re actually doing, is damaging the structural stability of the wall. It is a real feat of genius that Gaudi achieved by using catenary arches, which allowed him to interpret space as dynamic and fluid, and not rigid.

Without using the stability principals of catenary, Gaudi couldn’t possibly have opened hundreds of stained glass windows, with the ceiling not only supporting its own weight, but also carrying the mass of more than a dozen spires as well. (There’s a detailed chain model of the entire building on display in the Gaudi Museum adjacent to the church. Might as well have a peek on the way out while we’re at it).

One-view of the columns and ceiling, organic and natural design like a forest
The columns and ceiling resemble a dense forest.

The main columns are designed to resemble the canopy of a dense forest, with the ceiling also reflecting a similar theme. Such is the radical nature of the architecture that if you’re not aware of the history of the basilica, there’s a decent chance you might get fooled into believing that the interior was designed somewhere between 10 and 20 years ago. In reality, the project is so colossal that construction has been going on for more than a century!

Further Reading

Images on this page

Leave a comment