We left the visit to the Basilica almost to the end of our trip, not out of choice but because they were booked a month ahead. We ended up with a 5:15pm time slot and were afraid it would be too dark to see anything.
Let me comment on the outside first. Antoni Gaudí put his stamp on the work from its beginning in 1882. One of Catalina’s best known Moderniste (or Catalan Art Nouveau) artist and architect, he has left throughout his imprint throughout the city. He favoured curves for his creations, arguing that there advert few angles in nature. The Sagrada Familia was to be his “oeuvre maîtresse” and he spent most of his time on it until his untimely death in 1936. Other architects have taken the challenge of continuing with his vision. One hundred and thirty-five years later, the structure is about half finished.
Like the Eiffel tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York, you can see the Sagrada Familia from pretty much everywhere at a higher elevation: Park Güell, Montjüic, the roof of the cathedral, etc. When seen from a distance, it looks gray and forbidding, more like a fortress than a church. The recognizable Gaudí’s touches are invisible and all you see are the tall peaks that soar, surrounded by blocks of modest apartment buildings so tightly weaved in that it seems the church is holding its breath.
Close up isn’t that much better. The oldest facade is so filled with, at first, incomprehensible bits, that it looks like the work of a demented artist playing with concrete or like a bunch of invading aliens frozen in place, gaping in death because they couldn’t breathe our atmosphere. As you concentrate on the façade, you start seeing cartouches with religious stories: the Nativity, the Annunciation, the flight from Egypt. You realize that the people represented are life-sized because the whole thing is so darn big.
On the other hand, the newer façade is … chiseled. Straight lines and angles are a sharp contrast to the Gaudí façade and have very little in common with Moderniste style. It has its own merits but to me, as with other people, it clashes with Gaudí’s intent.
Having seen the exterior (along with all the ugly cranes and the restoration work to the oldest portions already in process), I was more than ambivalent, and perhaps a little cynical about having a look inside.
Oh, boy. With the grim exterior you’d think that Gaudí would’ve followed suit inside. Not quite. Reverence is what you feel when you step inside. Columns soaring up, splitting up and out like tree branches and stained glass windows that surround the nave and just about break your heart with rapture when the outside light hits them.
The sun was setting when we went in so the heart of the church was bathed in red and yellow light while on the other side the green and blue windows seemed to wait for morning to show their luminous colours. Someone was playing the organ and the music filled the air and rose towards the ceiling.
At eye level, Gaudí used the Catalan Gothic architecture: one huge nave with the altar at one end and very simple ornamentation; the rectangular design permits a second story, which most Gothic churches don’t have. Even though the rest of the inside is grandiose, when you begin to study what he’s done you realize that he has respected other aspects of the Catalan Gothic: there is a second floor, which is used as a choir, and while there are many towers outside (in various states of readiness) the impression is of a large rectangle with soaring pillars. So although Gaudí’s put his own undeniably genius stamp on the church, he was also listening to the cultural history of church-building in Catalonia.
We weren’t finished looking at everything two hours later but they kicked us all out anyway. When all is said and done, I still don’t like the Sagrada Familia’s exterior much but the wonderment I felt inside more than made up for it.