Wednesday, April 19, 2006


La Sagrada Familia
Photos of La Sagrada Familia have always frightened me. The spires are too tall, the stone is too dense, the sculptures drip down from their oblong niches like the faces of the villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark who stared too directly at the Holy Spirit. I was as excited as I was terrified to see the real thing for myself.

Late on Easter morning, we emerged from Barcelona's metro system into the first sunny day we had enjoyed during our short visit. I knew the cathedral must be behind me, because the tourists ahead of me stopped short at the top of the metro stairs and craned their necks upward, shouting, "There it is." So I turned and tipped my head back. And there, among construction cranes and throngs of student tour groups and blue Catalan skies, it was.

I've visited my fair share of European churches. At some point during the admiration of monstrous stained glass windows and hulking marble columns, someone, maybe me, says, "This took hundreds of years to build. Can you imagine, there are generations of people who only saw it partially completed. It is so ambitious and expensive and immense, something like this could never be built today. The religious fervor and the money just isn't there anymore." And then I would go on to the crypt and see the graves of the priests and the architects and one or two famous writers and artists who were buried there and who never saw the beauty of the finished product that I am enjoying.

Sagrada Familia is as gigantic an undertaking as I have ever seen. It incorporates hundreds of sculptures, tons and tons of stone, modern and ancient architecture, and years and years of labor. And it's only half-finished. Only eight of the twelve spires are complete. One entire facade was erected within the past twenty years. Its unenclosed interior is filled with scaffolding, and its windows are sparkly and new. It is untraditional and modern; its interior columns look like trees, their branches supporting egg-shaped spires with words and mosaics adorning them. The story of its construction is dramatic, involving political battles, financial struggle, war, and the tragic death of its visionary architect in a tram accident before the first towers were erected. It may not be completed within my lifetime.

I searched the crypt museum for a model of the completed church; I wanted to know what it would look like as a whole, and I was troubled when I realized that I will never know. Then it occurred to me, how many people get to experience the birth of art? And what more proof do I need that faith and ambition are alive than to see the construction cranes rising above these spires, poised to build an even higher central tower and dome? It is a frightening and glorious place, and I understood why so many faithful were still working to complete Gaudi's vision, to lift a giant hand to the heavens. If the Holy Spirit is anywhere, I realized, it's in there.

And then I made my way out of the church just in time, before my face began to melt right off.

1 comment:

Dina said...

Very well said. Juice and I visited Barcelona and La Sagrada Familia in summer 2004. To say that it is humbling to witness such vision leaves me wishing for a stronger vocabulary. I'm glad you got to see it, and posted about it. Go on Gaudi. :-)