Barcelona: Sagrada Família Basilica

After touring Casa Batlló in Barcelona last October, my impression of Antoni Gaudí was that he was a rebel; someone set on defying tradition and the norms of his time, like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright.

My view changed within a couple of hours when we finished our tour of Sagrada Família Basilica.  It was then that I understood that while, yes, he had a very unique interpretation of architecture, his designs were based on much the same principles as Andrea Palladio: nature and mathematics.  This was most evidenced to me by what our tour guide told us about the enormous columns inside the church.

Sagrada Família Basilica – Barcelona, Spain (Antoni Gaudí, architect)

In Book I of his Four Books on Architecture, Andrea Palladio specified that columns should swell, or taper, from the base up towards the capital.  Even though Gaudí’s columns look nothing like Palladio’s classics, they are based on the same natural principle of a tree trunk, tapering from its roots to its canopy.  (And then there’s Frank Lloyd Wright, who reversed that natural principle altogether – he may be the real rebel).

left: Palladio’s classic Corinthian column – center: Gaudi’s “tree trunk” column – right: Wright’s “lily pad” column

As our guide continued, the depth of symbolism in practically every surface was mind-boggling; not the sort of thing a careless, rebel-type would concoct.  There truly was method in Gaudí’s seeming madness.

Like the story of Casa Batlló’s original tenant, I am having to rely on my six month-old memory to recall some examples (if only I had an audiographic memory!):

In addition to the 52 “tree trunk” columns inside the church, representing the 52 weeks of the year,¹ there are numerous references to the temporal cycles of life.  The eastern-facing windows of the nave, along the Nativity façade, are designed with cooler-colored glass, symbolic of morning, spring, birth; the western-facing windows along the Passion façade, with their warmer-colored glass, alternately symbolize sunset, autumn, death.²

Sagrada Família Basilica – plan

The façades themselves (the Glory façade³ is still under construction) are a continuous display of the meaning they represent.  The Nativity façade, in addition to the obvious depiction of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, teems with portrayals of life, birth, and joy: leaves, music, birds, fruit, happy children, comfort, hope.

Sagrada Família Basilica Nativity façade: full of symbols of life, growth, joy, and celebration

The Passion façade is a stark contrast.  The grief and sorrow projected from the statues’ hardened edges is palpable.

Sagrada Família Basilica Passion façade: symbolic of grief, sorrow, betrayal, and death

My parting impression of Antoni Gaudí as I left Sagrada Família Basilica was no longer that of a renegade, but of someone deeply spiritual.  Every surface, feature, color, sculpture (including their human models), relic, the numerology, and overall layout of the building has a purpose.  The entire structure, inside and out, tells the stories meaningful to the Catholic faith.

The more trips I take, the more I continue to appreciate how important it is to see places in person, to get out there and experience them firsthand.  No matter how many articles, books, videos, photos, and blogs can be found on a particular building or place, there are still so many more fascinating things to learn from standing there in person.  (I have also come to appreciate the value of a guide)!

And next time, I’m going to take notes.


¹This is a succinct way to describe the basilica’s layout, but is not entirely accurate.  There are actually more than 52 interior columns; however, each one does have its own symbolism to the liturgical calendar.  A more complicated (and interesting)explanation can be found at www.sagradafamilia.org.

²Another detailed explanation of the windows can also be found at www.sagradafamilia.org.

³The future Glory façade is described at Musmon.com.