Barcelona, Spain: Gaudí and his Sagrada Familia

Barcelona’s bold Gaudi

The Sagrada Familia. Source: “Sagrada Familia 01” by Bernard Gagnon  (Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be a writer.  In elementary school, I wrote all the time, stories about my family and ghosts and about a talking cow name Betsy who had super powers and a knack for saving the world.  As I grew older, my desire to write didn’t lessen, but I developed something most people are familiar with–fear of failure, a death-knell to the creative spirit.  I abandoned the fantastical stories, instead joining the newspaper and writing articles about sporting events and the Homecoming Dance.  After high school, I gave up writing altogether, except for occasional attempts at a novel or a short story, all of which sputtered to a halt as soon as self-doubt entered the picture.  I had lost faith in my ability to create.

Many people know exactly what I’m talking about.  We fear looking like a fool, or being different, or failing.  But not everyone lets these doubts stand in their way. and when I see someone who never let fear get in his or her way and the amazing things they create, I feel inspired.  Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí is one of those people.  He created the most amazing buildings, filled with colors and shapes and structures that are unlike anything we’ve ever.  And he stayed true to his vision of the world even in the face of opposition.  While we were in Barcelona, we witnessed what a mind can create when its free to explore, when it’s not constrained by the fears that can develop as we turn into grown-ups.  Over the next two posts, we’ll take a closer look at Gaudí and some of his mind-blowing creations.

Antoni Gaudí

Antoni Gaudí in 1878 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Antoni Gaudí in 1878 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So who was this fellow?

We took a Gaudí walking tour while we were in Barcelona, and here is some of what we learned:

  • Gaudí was born just outside of Barcelona, in either Reus or Riudoms, Spain, in 1852.  There are no definitive documents that confirm either town as his birthplace, and both claim him.
  • Gaudí was nicknamed “God’s architect” because of his faith and dedication to the Catholic Church, which deepened as he aged.  His passions in life were God, architecture, and nature, and his works reflect this.
  • He received his architectural degree from the Barcelona Architecture school in 1878.  When he received his degree, the director of the school reportedly said, “We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius.  Time will show.”
  • Most of his works are located in Barcelona.
  • He devoted his entire life to his profession.  He never married or had children.  As he aged, he abandoned secular values and cared less and less about his appearance, so much so that toward the end of his life he wore tattered clothes and neglected his appearance.
  • He is one of the pioneers of the Modernisme movement, also known as Catalan Modernism, part of the larger Modernism movement going on throughout the art world at that time.  Modernistas (devotees of Catalan Modernism) rejected bourgeois values and also wanted to celebrate the characteristics that made the artwork of Catalonia special.  He also introduced new ways of using materials, such as his use of broken tiles and ceramic pieces meant for the landfill.  He used these waste pieces in many of his most treasured mosaic pieces.
  • Gaudí died tragically.  On June 7, 1926, he was walking to church for his daily prayer and confession when he was struck by a tram and lost consciousness.  Because he had long neglected his appearance, he looked shabby, and passersby assumed he was a beggar.  He lay in the street for some time before someone finally transported him to the hospital, and he received only minimal care.  The chaplain of the Sagrada Familia, realizing he was missing, located him the next day, but by this time it was too late.  He was beyond recovery, and he died on June 10, at the age of 73.  A large crowd turned out for his funeral, which was held at the his most important creation, the Sagrada Familia.
Sagrada Familia, Passion façade

The Sagrada Familia

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Catalan, for “Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family”), more familiarly known as just Sagrada Familia, is often described as Gaudí’s “magnum opus,” and indeed, there is nothing in the world like it.  It is an enormous Roman Catholic Church that, ninety years after Gaudí’s death, still hasn’t been completed.

Construction on this site began in 1882 under a different architect’s care, but when this man stepped down a short time later, and Gaudí took over.  Under his guidance, the original, more traditional vision for the church radically changed.  He spent the next 43 years working on the Sagrada Familia, devoting the last ten years of his life solely to this project, even moving out of his house into his workshop in the Sagrada Familia the year before his death.


The pace of construction was plodding, and at the time of Gaudí’s death, less than 25 percent was completed.  The challenges continued after his death; work was halted at the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and the church suffered damage from looters during the war.  During much of dictator Franco’s 40+ year reign, construction was minimal, especially since Gaudí’s works and the modernista movement in general fell out of fashion.

And now, ninety years after his death, it is still incomplete, albeit closer; Gaudí’s unique vision is now fully appreciated, and his works are a major tourist attraction in Barcelona.  Construction on the Sagrada Familia has ramped up significantly, and we even have a projected completion date: 2026, the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death (143 years after construction was started).  When discussing the monumentally slow construction process, our tour guide joked that “This is Spain, the Land of Mañana.  Nothing gets done on schedule.”

Regardless, an incomplete Sagrada Familia is still a sight to behold.

Sagrada Familia, Glory Façade (under construction)


Why the Sagrada Familia is special

What’s so special about the Sagrada Familia?  The structures that were constructed first, the crypt and apse, were of Gothic style and not particularly unique, but as Gaudí’s unique modernista vision evolved, so did his vision for the Sagrada Familia, into that of an enormous, spacious church built with the concept of using organic structures that imitated natural shapes.  Gaudí, a lover of God’s creations, wanted the interior of the church to resemble a forest, and its enormous columns are shaped like branching trees.  He also manipulated the use of glass to maximize light and color.

Interior of Sagrada Familia (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Interior of Sagrada Familia (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Interior of Sagrada Familia (Source: Wikimedia Commons). Note how the columns look like trees!


The exterior is equally fantastic.  Through the use of detailed sculptures of monumental scope, it depicts the life of Christ, including His birth, crucifixion, and resurrection.  When it’s completed, the Sagrada Familia will have eighteen towers: twelve to represent each of the apostles; four on the transept to represent the New Testament evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; one on the apse dedicated to the Virgin Mary; and a central tower, dedicated to Jesus, that will reach 170 meters (560 feet) in height.

Sagrada Familia, depiction of the crucifixion of Christ
Sagrada Familia, Nativity Façade. The birth of Jesus is depicted here. Note the tree toward the top of the building, in the center of the four towers. This represents the Tree of Life

On the website Gaudi Experiencia, they describe the Sagrada Familia as “a veritable Bible in stone, a mystic poem that both professes and explains the Catholic faith.”  It’s an incredibly ambitious undertaking and labor of love, 143 years in the making, first for Gaudí and now for the city of Barcelona, and like I said, there is nothing like it.


The Sagrada Familia may be Gaudí’s most famous building, but there are many more beautiful works to be found throughout the city, and in the next post we’ll explore a few of the most important ones.

Note, due to time constraints and very long lines, we unfortunately did not go inside the Sagrada Familia on this trip, so the interior pictures come from Wikimedia Commons.