La Sagrada Familia was originally conceived by the Catalan publisher Josep Bocabella as a work of expiation for the city’s increasingly revolutionary ideas. Work began in 1882 by public subscription on a design by architect Francesc de Paula Villar, which proposed a simple church in a traditional neo-Gothic style.
After arguments between Bocabella and Villar, Antoni Gaudí took over as lead architect in 1884. Gaudí immediately changed the project completely, seizing the opportunity to express his strong religious and nationalist feelings.
After finishing the Parc Guell in 1911, Gaudí vowed to abandon secular art and devote himself entirely to the Sagrada Familia. He worked on it tirelessly for over 40 years, living as a virtual hermit in a workshop on the site. When questioned about the slow pace, he is said to have replied, “My client is not in a hurry.”
Nevertheless, it remained unfinished at Gaudí’s untimely death in 1926, when the artist was run over by a tram on the Gran Via. He died in hospital two days later and was mourned by all of Catalonia. He is buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia.
Work on the project continued after Gaudí’s death under the direction of Domènech Sugranyes but was interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1935. The building remained intact during the war, but in 1936 many of its models and plans were destroyed by Catalan anarchists, who saw the church as a symbol of the old, conservative religion that had no place in the new Barcelona.
Construction began again in the late 1950s and has continued ever since. The current design is based on a combination of reconstructed versions of the lost plans and modern adaptations. Vaults over the side aisles were added in 1995 and the roof over the nave was finished in early 2001.
The current director, Jordi Bonet i Armengol, began using computers for the design and construction process in the 1980s, which has sped up the complicated process considerably. Still, the final stage of the grand Sagrada Familia is not progressing much faster than it did under Gaudi. Estimated completion dates range from 2017 to 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.
What to see at La Sagrada Família
La Sagrada Familia is a striking example of Gaudi’s unique Art Nouveau architecture and is filled with religious symbolism and meaning.
Eight of the intended 18 towers have been built, which rise to over 100 meters. The towers represent the Twelve Apostles and each one bears the name and statue of its apostle.
Gaudi also intended to add a 180-meter tower in the center, topped with a great cross representing Jesus. This will be surrounded by four shorter towers representing the Four Evangelists, topped with their animal symbols. A still shorter tower will represent the Virgin Mary. The height of the tallest tower is to be one meter less than the nearby hill, Montjuic, as Gaudi believed his work should not surpass that of God.
The pinnacles of the towers are decorated with colorful mosaics and some are embedded with the words “Excelsis” and “Hosanna.”
The basilica has three facades, which are also filled with precise symbolism: the Passion Facade on the west; the Nativity Facade on the east; and the Glory Facade on the south. Each facade has three portals representing the virtues of Faith, Hope and Love.
The Passion Facade on the west side, dedicated to the suffering and death of Christ, is nearly complete. It is decorated with striking, angular sculptures by Josep Maria Subirach (begun 1952). Not everyone is a fan: art critic Robert Hughes declared it to be “the most blatant mass of half-digested moderniste cliches to be plunked on a notable building within living memory.” Its great doors, which serve as the main entrance, are printed with words from the Bible in various languages including Catalan; the word JESUS and select others are painted to stand out.
The Nativity Facade on the east side, dedicated to the birth of Christ, was completed before work was interrupted in 1935 and bears the most direct Gaudi influence. The birth of Christ is depicted in the center, with the Adoration of the Magi on the left and the Adoration of the Shepherds on the right. Above is the Annunciation and Coronation of the Virgin Mary.
High on the Nativity Facade us a spire with a cypress tree, symbolizing the tree of life. At the foot of the tree is a pelican and angels holding chalices, symbols of the Eucharist. At the top of the tree is a red Tau cross with an ‘X’ representing Christ’s name and a dove representing the Holy Spirit.
The bases of the facade contain sculptures of turtles, symbolizing the stability of the cosmos. The one closer to the sea is a sea turtle; the one closer to the mountains is a land tortoise. Gaudi was a true nature lover and spent much time studying it in the countryside.
Inside the Sagrada Familia, areas will be dedicated to religious concepts such as saints, virtues and sins, and secular concepts such as the regions of Spain.
You can take elevators to the top of the inside of the Nativity Facade and Passion Facade, or climb 400 steps. Once at the top, you can climb around the walls and into other towers and enjoy partial views of Barcelona through a jumble of latticed stonework, ceramic decoration, carved buttresses and a variety of sculpture.