You might have heard of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia – it’s the massive cathedral, started in 1882, that’s still being built today 90 years after its master-planner’s death. Not-so-fun fact: Gaudi died in 1926 after he was hit by a tram, and was therefore unable to witness the completion of his crowning achievement. Because of this tragic fact, work continues on the building to this day, with a planned completion date of 2026 – on the 100 year anniversary of that fateful tram accident.
I know, I know – there are hundreds, no probably thousands of cathedrals all over Europe. Why should you care about this one? Because it’s different and weird, grotesque and beautiful, ornate and strangely simple, overwhelming and surprisingly colorful…and because it is a living, breathing, changing monument attesting to the impermanence and ever-developing nature of things. Never mind that construction “just” started 150 years ago – parts of the outer façade and towers seem to be plucked straight out of any Gothic period master’s imagination. But the inside…well, that’s a whole different ballgame.
First things first: the cathedral is plopped in the middle of a crowded, busy, residential and commercial area of Barcelona. Lovely parks border it on opposing sides, but it is not surrounded or fronted by an expansive square like St. Peter’s or Notre Dame de Paris. It almost nestles itself imposingly into the real-life fabric of the city while its bulk and height continue to grow: little did we know that another EIGHT towers are being added to the original, already impressive ten extant – and the tallest, that of Jesus Christ, will stretch 170 meters (560ft) into the sky. Fun fact: this highest tower will fall one meter short of the height of Montjuïc hill, as Gaudi believed that his own creation should not surpass that of God.
Given this placement, visitors come around a corner or down a side street and BAM – all of a sudden, there appears the enormous structure, not quite all visible at once from any one vantage point. It seems likely that, no matter when you visit, you will be accompanied by scores of others eager to study the unbelievable architecture, incredibly intricate carving, and unending rainbows of stained-glass windows. But this doesn’t matter – it’s large enough that the space inside drowns out all voices, and you’re only able to process bits at a time anyway. Just be sure to book your visit in advance – you’re given a 15 minute window to access the cathedral, but can then spend as much time as you like inside.
Speaking of inside…I was not prepared, despite having seen a few photos and heard a few things. Each wall and corner and section glowed with light filtered through stained-glass windows designed in progressive color schemes following the rainbow – one side of the central nave shone red, then orange, then yellow fading into green, and the opposite side featured deeper green, then blue, then purple designs. A forest of basalt, granite and porphyry columns line the nave (indeed, Gaudi intended these columns to resemble leaves and branches) which reaches a staggering height of 45m (150ft), while the central, circular vault soars to 60m (200ft) above visitors’ heads. While the outside of the cathedral practically drips with deep carvings and numerous figures, the inside is shockingly modern and clean – the incongruity has still not resolved itself in my mind. Inside is all light, white, rainbows, sharp points, geometric shapes, clear lines, while outside is tangled, dark, deep, twisted and almost tortured – but punctuated with large bunches of gaudily mosaic-covered fruit (what??) topping the smaller towers. Quite a juxtaposition.
Joe and I opted to ascend one of the towers (on the Passion façade, as opposed to the Nativity façade) so we could absorb views of Barcelona from a different vantage point and direction than we enjoyed from Montjuïc. A sleek elevator shot us up most of the way along with 6 other intrepid souls and we were suddenly right up in the middle of everything – construction ongoing to our lower left, statues in front of and around us, rooftops and half-built towers just below and above. We felt as if we were sneaking around on Gaudi’s masterpiece, separated only by chainlink fences, nets and the massive stone bulk of the tower. As we climbed back down via a narrow, steep spiral staircase, we peeped out of window slits, momentarily blinded by the bright sunlight shining into the dark interior.
At the end of our visit, we vowed to come back in 10 years – I can’t even imagine what will greet our eyes at that point. This already impressive monument to Christ, his Passion, the Nativity, the 12 Apostles, the Virgin Mary and the Four Evangelists is only about 75% complete (and was only 20% finished when Gaudi died)…what an epic and truly astonishing work of art, architecture and praise.