Although sacred structures of all sorts have been central to every culture throughout history, religious architecture has attained even greater importance in times of social upheaval. This was certainly true in mid-nineteenth-century Barcelona, the ancient Mediterranean port that became an economic powerhouse with the advent of industrialized textile manufacturing. As the strains caused by this rapid shift from small workshop to large factory production worsened, many felt that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy was unresponsive to the travails of increasingly downtrodden urban laborers. Thus during the 1870s pious (and wealthy) barcelonés conceived a monumental building project for a working-class neighborhood that they hoped would stem religious disaffection by harking back to the devotional fervor, communal brotherhood, and civic pride fostered by the grand cathedral construction campaigns of the Middle Ages.
The result is one of the most celebrated shrines in Christendom, known in Catalan as the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family). It was begun in 1882 using the conventional neo-Gothic designs of Francisco de Paula del Villar, who after two years of persistent quarrels with diocesan supervisors quit and handed the job over to his largely untested assistant Antoni Gaudí. Over the next four decades Gaudí worked toward a church that would be both intensely personal yet embracingly universal, startlingly unprecedented though rooted in tradition, and altogether far more rich and strange than anything del Villar ever dreamed of.
Although many cathedrals feature ensembles that depict the story of the Gospel, the program of the Sagrada Família sculptures makes most others seem rather subdued. Gaudí’s Nativity Façade, executed between 1894 and 1930, offers a paradisiacal vision of (holy) family life amid a panoply of grottoes dripping with stalactites, dense with leafy bocage, and alive with all sorts of fauna and flora. You have to look closely to find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph through all the busy detail. One can scarcely imagine what this teeming jumble would have looked like had it all been painted in polychrome, as Gaudí wanted to do in the manner of the ancient Greeks.
Above the sanctuary rise eight elongated sugarloaf spires (four were completed before the Spanish civil war, another quartet has been added since, with another ten to come). Their surfaces are multicolored mosaic and they are surmounted by torqued and faceted pinnacles topped with marvelous finials like radiant monstrances. Unfurled down the sides of the towers, where only angels can read them, are trompe-l’oeil scrolls joyously inscribed “Excelsis,” “Hosanna,” and “Sanctus.”
Contrary to the common misnomer, the Sagrada Família is not a cathedral—site of a bishop’s throne, or cathedra—though it was elevated to the status of a “minor basilica” when Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the half-finished church in 2010.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.