One of my favourite posts on this blog is from Prague last year, sharing our visit to Prague’s famous St Vitus cathedral. St Vitus took many years to build, involving multiple architects and architectural styles, to create a beautiful, ornate monument that spends its days filled with devout Catholics and a billion tourists. However, while St Vitus may have been both beautiful and ornate, it has nothing on the Sagrada Família, Spain’s most extravagant ‘minor’ basilica.
Antoni Gaudí was clearly a genius and a lunatic; a genius due to his innovative, undulating masterpieces and a lunatic due to his propensity to put giant stone turtles at the doors of Spain’s most reverent offering to God.
As with the St Vitus cathedral, the Sagrada Família’s construction has been interrupted by death, war and fire. In fact, construction is very much still ongoing, with projections now suggesting that the building will be finished around 2026 (which, in construction terms, probably means more like 2085). This is not that unusual; most of the world’s most revered monuments took many decades, if not centuries, to build. But it feels odd to visit a monument-in-progress, which serves as yet another reminder that all the cultural mainstays we’re used to seeing around the world at one point were non-existent or incomplete and will likely again leave an empty space in the skyline one day.
The cathedral is already enormous. As soon as you turn the corner into the square, the many ornate spires tower over you. Then you look at the model of the finished basilica and realise it’s going to get so much taller. When it’s finished, it will be the tallest church building in the world.
The outside of the Sagrada Família is covered in statues, gargoyles, religious scenes, a Christmas tree covered in doves and mini-spires that look like they’re topped with bunches of fruit. The three facades are all different, with each of the Passion, Nativity and Glory facades showing different scenes and being decorated in different styles (unless you consider ‘showing-off’ a style).
Look, when you’re a kid and your parents insist on dragging you around old churches and cathedrals all over Europe (just kidding I am so grateful that you guys showed me the world, love you forever) (but seriously, there are only so many churches a seven year old can see before begging for a milkshake), you wish for a building like the Sagrada Família. The whole thing is a feast for the eyes, inside and out. It may well be the most impressive thing in Europe.
After you have marveled at the flamboyant external decoration, you head inside to be wowed by panel after panel of stained glass amidst the curves of the cathedral. I love stained glass and fancy glasswork, and nowhere is stained glass done better than in this building. The whole thing was designed to perfection; the panels fade between colours in organised chaos, with the light streaming through to bathe each side of the basilica in a different array of colours. The ceiling is full of stars and huge, diverging pillars that are reminiscent of trees. Gaudí was obsessed with the natural world, which is evident in his architecture. The gates to the Sagrada Família are guarded by a tortoise and a turtle, representing the land and the sea. There are fish dotted through the stained glass, though they are big enough and abstract enough that you might miss them if you don’t look closely. As an avid ocean lover, Gaudí’s clear commitment to bringing the sea to life in his work makes me very happy.
Part of me wondered if Gaudí truly meant this cathedral to be a monument to God (I mean, he did. He was a very devout Catholic and designed one of the most amazing Catholic churches in the world. I’m not actually doubting that) because it is so… loud and in-your-face with its grandeur that it’s hard to be about anything other than, well, the building itself. It’s hard to imagine anyone, even the most devout Catholic, walking into the Sagrada Família and not being totally floored and distracted by the never-ending wealth of things to look at. Yes, it is a church, but it’s more than that. It’s art, in a way that your run-of-the-mill churches and cathedrals are not.
I love the Sagrada Família, because it is bright and bold and beautiful. It is a testament to creativity and the things you can make by pushing boundaries. I love that we get to see it being built and can see the slow but steady progress on subsequent visits. It is the opposite of seeing an old building and learning about its history in isolation. This building’s history, its genesis, is happening right now. And we get to witness it! How amazing is that?
There really is nowhere like Sagrada Família, not only in terms of cathedrals and religious buildings but all buildings in general. It is a very special place to visit. I hope that one day I’ll get to see the finished product, having seen parts of its evolution along the way, before it becomes just another part of the backdrop.