La Sagrada Família (Temple of the Holy Family) is Antoni Gaudí‘s masterwork and has become the ultimate symbol of Barcelona. This unique modern temple has been under construction since 1882, and is expected to be completed by 2026. It occupies an entire block between Mallorca and Provença Street.
A life in the making
The foundation stone of this colossal basilica was laid in 1882 enabled by various private donations, and building work is still in progress, following the plans that Gaudí (aware he would not see the completion of the temple) left for his successors. During his lifetime, Gaudí only completed the crypt and the Nativity facade at the side. The surviving models and drawings have made it possible to continue with the building work, which continues to be funded only by private donations.
Architect Francesc de Paula Villar was originally commissioned to carry out La Sagrada Família’s project. After taking over the project in 1883, Antoni Gaudí continued work on the crypt, which was finished in 1889. Later he began work on the apse, while donations were received at a steady rate. After receiving a substantial anonymous donation, Gaudí planned a new and grander design. He proposed abandoning the old Neo-gothic plan in favour of a design that was more monumental and innovative.
A new cathedral for Barcelona
Gaudí’s new conception of La Sagrada Família was based on the traditions of Gothic and Byzantine cathedrals which Gaudí modified and improved on to offer a new architecture that makes the temple unique. His intention was to express Christian belief through the architecture and to communicate the message of the Evangelists. He achieved a symbiosis between form and Christian iconography with a personal design that use new but thoroughly logical structures and forms and geometries inspired by nature.
The meaning of La Sagrada Família is communicated through the form and expressivity of its architecture and the iconography of its sculpture.
Its main design is a central nave with four aisles at the sides and a transept with a central nave flanked by two aisles forming a Latin cross. The top of the cross is closed by the semi-circular apse.
Three main facades
The symbolism of its three main facades is so detailed and so profuse that just admiring these can take hours. Some are in plain sight while others are hidden. For instance, one of them is a 4 x 4 magic square, which vertically and horizontally always adds up to 33, the age of Christ at the time of the Passion. A similar 4 x 4 magic square can be seen in the famous engraving Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer.
Gaudí’s plan was for a group of 18 towers. The four bell towers on each facade represent the twelve Apostles and are 100 metres high. A dome-shaped tower will eventually crown the apse, symbolising the Virgin Mary, and four slimmer, 135-metre-high, towers representing the four Evangelists and their Gospels will encircle the central and tallest tower representing Jesus Christ, reaching 172,5 metres in height.
You can go up the towers on foot or using the lift, and enjoy breathtaking views of Barcelona.
The design will be completed with four domed structures, some 40 metres high, located at each corner: two sacristies on the northern side; and on the southern side the baptistery and the chapel of the Holy Sacrament and Penitence. These four constructions and the three facades will be linked by a wide, covered corridor, with a double wall, referred to as a cloister by Gaudí, which will insulate the central nave from noise from the street, and will allow circulation from one building to another without the need to cross the main nave.
Gaudí wanted to make an impact on the skyline showing his respect for the work of God, which should never be superseded by man in his opinion. At 172,5 metres tall, La Sagrada Família remains a few metres below the height of Montjuïc, the highest point in the municipality of Barcelona.
The inner forest
On the inside Gaudí took his inspiration from nature and designed enormous columns shaped like tree trunks that turn it into an exuberant stone forest. These branching columns reflect Gaudí’s idea that the inside of the temple should be like a wood that invites prayer and is fitting for celebrating the Eucharist.
Gaudí planned for the light inside La Sagrada Família to be harmonious and to accentuate the plasticity of the nave, but above all to be conducive to introspection.
Gaudí made great use of light to endow his architecture with expressivity and grandeur. To lessen the load of the roofing and bring light into the building he designed lucarnes or skylights in between the columns, based on hyperboloids, built using pieces of golden and green glass and tiles to reflect daylight inside. All the stained glass in the apse follows a plan of graduated tones to create an atmosphere suitable for introspection.
The Symbolism of light
Sunlight glistens on the pinnacles of the towers and windows. The rising sun lights up the portals of the Nativity facade, accentuating the joy for life that is the birth of Jesus.
On the Passion facade the interplay of light and shadow produced by the setting sun heightens the sparse and severe character of the facade’s theme, while the Glory facade receives the mid-day sun that will shine on the 16 lanterns of the monumental porch and light up the main entrance to the basilica.
Gaudí said that colour was the expression of life.
La Sagrada Família, the ultimate symbol of Barcelona and masterwork of the Modernista architectural genius Antoni Gaudí, is of immeasurable architectural value. It has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2005.