Sagrada Familia, see the Spanish sublime

Sagrada Familia

A UNESCO world heritage site The Sagrada Familia, or the Church of the Holy Family is quite simply, the most breathtaking building I have ever encountered. That’s quite an accolade for one that is nowhere near completion too!

This is because the basilica is a triumph and celebration of distinct but interconnected styles, culminating in a crescendo of architectural glory and numinous atmosphere, located in the heart of magnificent Barcelona.

The styles mentioned include the prevailing and always stunning Gothic style, which can be recognised by its high and pointed turrets and large and inspiring windows. (Gothic architecture is arguably the most common for European cathedrals and churches, and not indicative of vampires and the night as the modern adjective has come to suggest). The second is the modern and charming art nouveau style, characterized by undulated lines and floral-inspired embellishes that make up the form of the exterior. The fancy and whimsical art nouveau is perhaps best recognised as something that is reminiscent of the designs created by the seminal Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha.

Alphonse Mucha's 'White Star' is indicative of the typical Art Nouveau aesthetic

Alphonse Mucha’s ‘White Star’ is indicative of the typical Art Nouveau aesthetic

The final style in the triumvirate of the Sagrada Familia’s architectural genius is perhaps not a style per se, but a series of aesthetic choices that are inspired by the geometry of natural phenomena themselves. It is therefore understandable to imagine the basilica as cluttered eclectic assemblage of a building, too busy to maintain a sense of regal grandeur. This, although understandable, is not the case at all. The Sagrada Familia is simply otherworldly, it appears to be pulled from a fantasy world and is wholly unique in design throughout the globe. For a mesmerising and theatrical visit, you really are spoilt at the Sagrada Familia. The vision and talent of its architect, Antoni Gaudi, persists even to today, almost 100 years after his death in 1926.

The Sagrada Familia should really be considered as somewhere to visit before you die, the mix of surrealism, the sublime and a sense of sanctity would undoubtedly make it a rewarding one.

Furthermore, the sheer extent of design features and the ever-evolving exterior (the building is still under construction) would ensure that any subsequent visits would yield new and exciting insights and moments of awe.

The Sagrada Familia in the 1920s

The history of the Sagrada Familia is almost as rich as the look of the building itself, and is often considered as indicative of the tumultuous past of its native city, Barcelona. That is due to the fact that the basilica has been considered as largely divisive; many people thought that it would potentially compete with Barcelona’s cathedral and therefore de-legitimising the traditional centre of the city’s Catholic faith. What is agreed upon today however, is that the Sagrada Familia is an homage to Gaudi’s strong Catholic identity, and rather looking to conflict with Barcelona’s wealth of architecture, it is actually a much loved local treasure that has a voice heard throughout the world.

The Sagrada Familia actually began construction without the direction of its spiritual father, Gaudi. It was a year later, in 1883, when he became involved and imbued the design with his interpretation of ‘gothic-nouveau’ architecture. However, to execute such a monolithic project, time and arduous amounts of effort were required, all the more worsened by the interruptions hosted by the Spanish Civil War and difficulties acquiring funding. In fact, the Sagrada Familia is still incomplete today, having an expected completion date of 2026. This fact shouldn’t be a deterrent; a visit to the Sagrada Familia is awe-inspiring despite it being unfinished and this should actually encourage multiple visits, prompting the viewer to engage with small but numerous additions that are constantly being made.

Nativity Facade

What is arguably most remarkable about the Sagrada Familia on a visual standpoint, is the sheer variety in its appearance. What I mean by this, is that the building is frequently noted as looking completely different depending on which angle you are viewing it. This is not incidental;  designed by both Gaudi and his predecessors are three distinct facades each dedicated to individual Biblical motifs. The first of which is the one bearing the greatest input from Gaudi himself and fittingly the only façade to be completed in his own lifetime. This is known as the nativity façade. Constructed between 1894 and 1930, the Nativity façade is, as the name suggests, dedicated to the birth of Jesus. As the motif is representative of birth and the idea of new life, it is adorned with ornate sculptures and scenes demonstrative of fertility and nature. The nativity façade is therefore comprised of three porticos, each suggesting an important theological virtue; hope, faith and charity. For instance, comprising ‘the portal of charity’, you will see amidst the beautifully carved and emotional Biblical characters, a representation of the cypress tree (known as the tree of life) embroidered with figures of doves (birds considered to be the allegorical form of the Holy Spirit). Truly, the Sagrada Familia is unique in the way in which it breaks from the architectural precedents for a religious building, transforming its exterior into a readable and endearing canvas in itself. To add a symbolic element to the structure there is a mass of intricate and encoded features, such as two sculptures of chameleons sitting at either side of the façade – this was so Gaudi could make a point of the importance of change in a person’s life.

Sagrada Familia ceiling

The interior too a visual feast. Full on the architectural wonder of the façades, you are treated to a hearty dessert of breathtaking stonework and ingenious displays of light. What never fails to stun is the ceiling, built from an interlocking network of geometrical shapes that pull on forms inspired by nature, and designed to capture the dancing beams of light shining through the stained glass windows.

If I haven’t made clear how impressing and moving the Sagrada Familia is, I apologise.

The bewildering but breathtaking behemoth of a basilica is a contradiction in terms. It is equally modern and antique.

The building is an homage to centuries worth of architectural tradition in its adoption of Gothic cathedral spires and illuminating stained glassed windows, built using the original techniques from hundreds of years ago. It is also incredibly ahead of its time and is very much still evolving. The Sagrada Familia is simultaneously a celebration of modern design and engineering, culminating in a hybrid of past and future, of familiar and alien.

Like the art of ballet or a great fireworks display, the Sagrada Familia is not an experience that can be fairly replicated through text or image. Simply, the one-of-a-kind building is best experienced yourself and ideally with the benefit of one of the many detailed and immersive tours on offer.