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June 7 Antoni Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia

The great basilica of the Sagrada Familia is linked to one man, the genius, mystic and ascetic Antoni Gaudi. We look at the remarkable church in Barcelona, who inspired it - how it now has inspired so many, converting many of the skilled craft workers dedicated to it. How UNESCO had classified it a World Heritage Site before it is even finished and how Gaudi himself is on the path to Sainthood.


Today we remember two anniversaries, one is how on June 7th Guadi was hit by a tram which lead to his death in 1926. We also remember how on June 7th , 136 years after its construction started it was finally granted a building permit by the city authorities.

The Basilica will always be associated with Gaudí, although it was the inspiration of a bookseller, Josep Maria Bocabella, who returned to Barcelona after a visit to Italy and a pilgrimage the Vatican in 1872. Inspired by the basilica at Loreto, he returned from Italy with the intention of building a church. Bocabella, devout and eccentric was concerned about the threats from a secular industrial society. The church would be dedicated to the Holy Family, in order to buttress family life, and would be placed on the edge of the expanding city. Early photographs show flocks of goats being herded in front of the building site. The apse crypt of the church, funded by donations, was begun on the festival of St. Joseph, to the design of the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar whose plan was for a Gothic revival church of a standard form. When Villar resigned a year later, Bocabella was casting about for a new architect.

Legend says that Bocabella dreamed that his architect would have piercing blue eyes and then met Antoni Gaudí, who had such eyes. Gaudí assumed responsibility for its design, which he changed radically. Originally envisioned as a Gothic church, Gaudi combined this with curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. He is considered a pioneering genius by many, combining his architectural and engineering style to create a new style of architecture called Catalan Modernism. Others found it tacky, and the English word gaudy was coined as a sign of disapproval of much modernist inspired work. Influenced by Oriental techniques he integrated such crafts as ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry. He also introduced new techniques in the treatment of materials. The church shares its site with a school originally designed by Gaudí in 1909 for the children of the construction workers.

The church became his magnus opus and while never intended to be a cathedral, his ambition was for it to be a cathedral-sized building. He believed that Catalonia had been chosen by God to take forward Christian architecture. His ground-plan is inspired by earlier Spanish cathedrals such as Burgos, León and Seville. It is often assumed to be Barcelona’s Cathedral, but the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Barcelona, is the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. Pope Benedict consecrated the church in 2010 and designated it a minor basilica, for the differences between a basilica and a cathedral see the pod of April 18.

Gaudi was struck fatally by a vehicle on 7 June 1926, when he was taking his daily walk to the Sant Felip Neri church for his habitual prayer and confession. While walking along the Gran Via, he was struck hit by a passing number 30 tram and lost consciousness. He was 73 at the time, and in his younger life he had worn expensive suits and was famous for making frequent visits to the theatre, the opera and visiting his project sites in a horse carriage. The older Gaudi, who never married, ate frugally, dressed in old, worn-out suits, and neglected his appearance to the extent that sometimes he was taken for a beggar. After being struck by the tram, as he was assumed to be a beggar and tragically the unconscious Gaudí did not receive immediate aid. Eventually some passers-by took him to hospital, where he received rudimentary care and he was found to be wearing underpants held together by safety pins. By the time that the chaplain recognised him on the following day, his condition had deteriorated too severely. He died on 10 June 1926 at the age of 73 and was buried two days later. A large crowd gathered to bid farewell to him in the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the crypt of the Sagrada Família.

Ten years later in 1936, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a group of anarchists broke into the Sagrada Familia and set fire to the crypt. Though many important materials involving the construction were lost, a few were saved. After his death, there was a lively debate about whether it was proper to continue the work of such a unique genius. In the early 1960s, architectural luminaries such as Le Corbusier signed a petition, urging that the church either be left unfinished or that a competition be held to find a new design by a living architect. The main effect of the petition was to prompt a record-breaking year for public donations in reaction to this intervention by "Marxist heretics". It wasn’t until advancements in technology, such as computer-aided design and computerized numerical control were made that progress of the church really moved forward much faster. By the year 2010, about 50% of the project was completed and just 5 years later, 70% was completed.

Gaudí's Catholic faith intensified during his life and this earned him the nickname "God's Architect”. He was not a practising Catholic when he started the project, but that began to change as the basilica slowly took shape. It seems that while Gaudi was working on the joyful nativity facade that the architect "saw the person of Jesus Christ". Slowly, his life took on an ascetic pattern. For lunch Gaudi would eat just a few lettuce leaves dipped in milk. When he was in his early 40s, he nearly died fasting for lent, and only began to eat again when a priest reminded him of his mission to build the basilica. He was to devote more than four decades of his life to it, turning down lucrative contracts in Paris and New York.

The Sagrada Familia, although due to be completed in 2025, has already been declared a World Heritage Sites by UNESCO alongside 6 other of his works. When it is completed, it will be tallest religious building in all of Europe with the central tower in the middle reaching 170 meters. However, this will still be one meter less than the tallest hill in Barcelona, which is also the city’s highest point. Gaudí believed that nothing man-made should ever be higher than God’s work. On completion it will have 18 towers (currently there are only 8). 12 of the towers will represent the apostles, four of them will represent the evangelists, one will be designated for the Virgin Mary, and of the last one, the highest one in the middle, will represent Jesus Christ.

There are three facades at La Sagrada Familia, and the Nativity Facade was completed by Gaudí himself. He famously adjusted his buildings as he went along, modifying details in response to unusual stones found in the quarry and forever testing his ideas with full size mock-ups. He had a donkey hoisted up the facade of the church, to see how it would look in a sculpted nativity scene, In the interests of spiritual research, he attended a death at a hospital and claimed he could see the moment when the soul of the departed met the holy family. The Passion Façade, was started in 1954 and completed in 1976, in contrast to the Nativity Facade is completely different as it’s very plain and simple and faces the setting sun which is representative of the death of Jesus Christ. It has 6 large inclined columns that represent trunks of Sequoia trees and also has 3 portico’s which represent the 3 religious virtues, Faith Hope and Charity. The Glory Façade, which was started in 2002 and is yet to be completed, will be the most striking and impressive façade of the three. It represents the road to heaven & God and is dedicated to the Celestial Glory of Jesus Christ. The façade will be heavily ornamented with both the 7 deadly sins and the 7 virtues on top of them. The doors of the Glory Façade granting access to the central nave of the church were installed in the year 2008. The Lord’s Prayer is inscribed into them and the text “Give Us Our Daily Bread” is written on them in 50 different languages. The door handles are formed with the letters A and G where it states “And lead us not into temptation.” With the letters A and G being a reference to the creator of the church, Antoni Guadi.

Inside the basilica, the stained glass is breath taking and the interior columns resemble trees, and are a unique Gaudí design, when you look up at them their shapes constantly change, as real trees appear to do. Besides branching to support their load, their ever-changing surfaces are the result of the intersection of various geometric forms. There is also a tortoise and turtle holding up these columns, representing both the earth and the sea. The exterior steeples are decorated with words such as "Hosanna", "Excelsis", and "Sanctus" in beautiful detail at the top, when questioned about the detail as no human eye would be able to see them, Gaudi replied ‘They are for the angels’. However, there are elevators inside the church that allow visitors to see the lowest and highest parts of the structure and from the towers, you can see gorgeous views of the city.

Construction on Sagrada Familia is not supported by any government or official church sources. Private patrons funded the initial stages. When the project was in danger of running out of money, he frantically gathered donations to keep a small team of craftspeople working at the site. Money from tickets purchased by tourists is now used to pay for the work, every year, more than 4.5 million visitors pay 17 to 38 euros to tour the basilica. According to the Barcelona government, an estimated “20 million tourists stand outside to marvel at the bell towers,”and private donations are accepted through the Friends of the Sagrada Família. In October 2018, Sagrada Família trustees agreed to pay €36 million in payments to the city authorities, to land a building permit after 136 years of construction. Most of the funds would be directed to improve the access between the church and the Barcelona Metro. The permit was issued by the city on 7 June 2019.

A campaign to make Antoni Gaudi a saint was launched more than 20 years ago, when a priest suggested to the Catalan architect, Jose Manuel Almuzara, that Gaudi would be a good candidate for beatification. Almuzara formed the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudi, and began work on the papers required to put his name forward to the Vatican for consideration. The next step is for cardinals and theologians to vote on a decree regarding Gaudi's worth, which will then be put before the Pope. If Pope Francis agrees with a positive verdict, Gaudi will be deemed "venerable". This could soon and might be timed to coincide with the Pope's next visit to Barcelona, still unscheduled. After Gaudi is declared venerable, the next step is beatification - but what about that elusive miracle? With millions of visitors to the sacred place, and among the international group of craftspeople who have been working on the building has been the scene of some unexpected conversions. For some it is also notable that from 1882 until now there has been no serious accident among builders working at such great heights. What the pro-beatification committee is really looking for is a medical cure - one that leaves doctors astounded. There have been a few cases, a woman with a perforated retina regained her sight from Gaudi's home town of Reus, she said she had been praying for help from Gaudi and her ophthalmologist said her recovery was completely exceptional. But some international experts were less impressed. A second example concerned a man with a tumour in his leg, who recovered in hospital without surgery but there was some disagreement among the patient's doctors about the cause of recovery. People are still waiting, for both the building itself to be finished and for an indubitable miracle to happen – many think the miracle itself is the Basilica.


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