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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, tu