08 November 2010

Pope Dedicates a Gaudí Church

During a brief trip to the Iberian Peninsula, Pope Benedict XVI visited Barcelona to dedicate and consecrate Sagrada Familia as a basilica, despite its unfinished status. Construction began in 1882 and is not projected to be completed until 2026, although the sanctuary has been ready for worship for a year. Nevertheless, Sagrada Familia is a beloved symbol of Barcelona and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.

The Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia was a project that began as a simple church in a neo-gothic style designed by Francesc de Paula Villar.   But when the Sagrada Familia project reigns passed to Antoni Gaudí, a young Catalan architect who was a devote Catholic with an imaginative spirit who intended that the church would be the last great sanctuary of Christendom.

Gaudí designed Sagrada Familia to depict "the divine history of the salvation of man through Christ incarnate, given to the world by the Virgin Mary".  Consequently, the plans for the edifice were imaginatively transformed to have three façades would depict the Nativity, the Passion of Christ and the Glory.  The 18 spires symbolized the twelve Apostles, the four Evangalists, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and the Son of God (Jesus Christ). So far, only eight towers have been built. These towers have a hollow middle section which allow for tubular bells to be placed as carillon to combine with the voices of the choirs.

Aside from the Grand layout, Antoni Gaudí’s naturalistic style is most evident in the Nativity Façade where elements of life augment the Incarnation theme.  Columns which separate the porticos in this section have tortoises as their base, which symbolize something set in stone and unchangeable. But at the sides of this  façade are chameleons, which are symbols of change.

In his remarks during the consecration Mass, Pope Benedict XVI recognized Gaudí’s ambition to unify the book of nature, the book of Sacred Scripture and the book of the liturgy in his architectural design. By incorporating the marvels of nature to glorify god with the mystery of the birth passion and glory of Jesus Christ, the Pope noted that:

[Gaudí] brilliantly helped to build our human consciousness, anchored in the world yet open to God, enlightened and sanctified by Christ. In this he accomplished one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty. Antoni Gaudí did this not with words but with stones, lines, planes, and points. Indeed, beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness. 

These lofty reflections on theology and aesthetics are in marked contrast to the louche libertine protests of the Papal visit outside the Sagrada Familia Basilica by homosexuals and anti-clerical activists.

The Sagrada Familia project was never expected to a completed quickly.  It is an Expiatory Temple, which is totally dependent on donations for completion.  Gaudí used to quip that “My client is not in a hurry.”  Construction was complicated because Gaudí constantly changed his blueprints informed by his evolving imagination. Much of the remaining original architectural design was destroyed by anti-clerical Republican partisans during the Spanish Civil War in 1938. So there are some noticeable deviations from Gaudí’s style in the construction that has continued since his death in 1926.

Gaudí spent the last 15 years of his life totally dedicated to this monumental project living an austere life.  In fact, Gaudí spent the last two years of his life sleeping in the crypt of Sagrada Familia and begging for donations. Gaudí died tragically in 1926 when he was hit by a tram driver and was not immediately taken to the hospital because taxi drivers refused to transport the ragged man with empty pockets to the hospital.  When Gaudí was recognized in a pauper’s hospital three days after the accident,  Gaudí  refused to go to a better hospital, he refused by saying “I belong here among the poor”.

The history of Gaudí is not only intertwined with the Sagrada Familia Basilica but it also may portend canonization.  Gaudí has been known as God’s architect due to his devotion to Sagrada Familia but there has also been a cause open for Gaudí’s beatification open in the Vatican since 1992. One of two miracles necessary for sainthood have been identified with case of Monserrat Barenys, whose perforated retina was miraculously healed when she prayed to Gaudí, but the Vatican has not certified this miracle.

Gaudí’s magnus opus may be endangered by progress.  The government wants to run a high speed rail line 90 feet underground near Sagrada Familia.  The government insists that the icon of Barcelona would not be endangered by the new public works project, but some locals consider a 2005 tunnel collapse as a cautionary example and oppose the high speed train. Perhaps UNESCO can protect their World Heritage site rather than play politics in the Holy Land by rewriting history.


ShadowSong said...

This is the best article I've seen on this topic. Awesome.

El Barroco said...

Thank you for the kind words. The Gaudi magnus opus combined current events with my interest in the arts, architecture, history and spirituality. It is gratifying to know that months the event, the article was still poignant.