Daily Dose of Europe: Gaudí’s Sagrada Família

Antoni Gaudí’s most awe-inspiring work is this unfinished, super-sized basilica. With its cake-in-the-rain facade and otherworldly spires, the basilica has become the icon of Barcelona.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Construction on the Sagrada Família began over a century ago (1883) and is still ongoing. The only section finished by Gaudí himself is the Nativity Facade. The four 330-foot towers soar upward, morph into round honeycomb spires, and taper to a point, tipped with colorful ceramic “stars.”

Gaudí’s Nativity Facade gives a glimpse at how grand this structure will be. The four spires are just a fraction of this mega-church. When finished, the church will have four similar towers on each side, plus five taller towers dedicated to the Evangelists and Mary. And in the very center will stand the 560-foot Jesus tower — the tallest in the world — topped with an electric cross shining like a spiritual lighthouse. The grand Nativity Facade (where tourists enter today) will become a mere side entrance. The huge church will accommodate 8,000 worshippers surrounded by a forest of sequoia-sized columns. With light filtering in, dappling the nave with stained-glass color, a thousand choristers will sing.

The Nativity Facade exemplifies Gaudí’s unmistakable style. It’s incredibly ornate, made from stone that ripples like frosting, blurring the architectural lines. The sculpted surface is crawling with life: people, animals, birds, trees, and weird bugs. Two massive columns flanking the entrance playfully rest on the backs of two cute little turtles. Gaudí’s religious vision was infused with a love of nature. “Nothing is invented,” he said, “it’s written in nature.” The church grows organically from the ground, blossoming to heaven.

As a deeply religious man, Gaudí’s architectural starting point was Gothic: spires, “flamboyant” ornamentation, pointed arches, and Christian themes.

The Nativity Facade, dedicated to Christ’s birth, features statues of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus — the “Holy Family” (or Sagrada Família) for whom the church is named.

Gaudí mixed in his trademark “Modernist” (or Art Nouveau) elements: color, curves, and a clip-art collage of fanciful symbols celebrating Barcelona’s glorious history. He pioneered many of the latest high-tech construction techniques, including parabolic arches, like those spanning the facade’s midsection. He molded concrete to ripple like waves and enlivened it with glass and tile. His vision: a church that would be both practical and beautiful.

Gaudí labored over Sagrada Família for 43 years. As with Gothic cathedrals of old, he knew it would require many generations to complete. The Nativity Facade was Gaudí’s template to guide future architects. But he also encouraged his successors to follow their own muses. After Gaudí’s death, construction continued in fits and starts, halted by war and stagnation.

Today, the project enjoys renewed life. The site — funded in part by admissions from daily hordes of visitors — bristles with cranking cranes, prickly rebar, scaffolding, and engineers from around the world, trained in the latest technology. More than a century after Gaudí began, they’re still at it. It’s a testament to the generations of architects, sculptors, stonecutters, fundraisers, and donors who became captivated by Gaudí’s astonishing vision, and are determined to incarnate it in stone.

The hoped-for date of completion? The centenary of Gaudí’s death: 2026. I’ll be there.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Gaudi.