Saturday, 20 November 2010

La Sagrada Familia, a 'church by Gaudi'

early artist's impression c.1930s
 Our last stop in Spain is Barcelona, and we have the best part of three days here. One of the things I love about travelling is truly discovering a place, learning things about it that I didn't know. Before coming to Barcelona I would have said it was best known for: 'church by Gaudi', nightlife, beach/sailing and Olympics . . . hmmm. I clearly didn't know too much (but at least I knew more about it than some of the other places we've visited!).

I'd seen pictures of the 'church by Gaudi' – otherwise known as Temple Expiatori Sagrada Familia – and remembered only that it was weird and colourful. That it most certainly is, but thanks to some fabulous exhibitions providing insights into Gaudi's thought processes and inspiration, plus an extensive history of the project, I now have a vastly greater appreciation. It is truly amazing and Gaudi was waaay ahead of his time. (He died in 1926, leaving others to carry on his vision.)

Most people will have seen pictures of this neo-gothic church-building that has been under construction since 1882 and is only just over half complete. They tell us that it will be up to 40% taller than its current height, which already leaps up into the air above Barcelona like a jewelled crown. It has crazy coloured ceramics adorning the pinnacles of its many spires, elaborate sculpted facades depicting stories from the new testament (notably the 'Passion Facade', representing the passion, death and resurrection of Christ; the 'Nativity Facade', illustrating many elements of the Christmas story; and the yet-to-be-built 'Glory Facade'), and the inside is a forest of columns and colourful windows and other ornaments.

Upon first entering the church, I was awed by the scale and the boldness of its design; but it wasn't until I had visited the exhibition in the cloister that explained the designs that I truly understood and appreciated it. At heart, Gaudi was inspired by nature in all its shapes, colours, and textures. This means that the interior forest of columns truly is a forest, complete with branches and canopy. The crazy coloured ceramics on top of the spires actually represent baskets of fruit . . . or sheaves of wheat/grain . . . Spirals and other shapes found in nature are everywhere. Gaudi also used very inventive geometrical shapes in his designs: planoids, ellipsoids, hyperboloids, twisted columns etc etc. Many of these feature ruled or twinned surfaces at their heart.

forest of columns

In a vast basement area, a museum exhibits multiple plaster models of various elements of the church, old photos harking back to the late 19th C showing the progress of the construction, and many more anecdotes and documents about the building of the church. It also explains how Gaudi used an inverted model of hanging weights to design the main structural elements in tension, before reversing the direction of all the forces to gain the compression forces – fascinating from an engineering point of view.

Just two weeks ago on 7 November 2010, La Sagrada Familia was dedicated as a church by Pope Benedict XVI and is now officially a holy place open for worship. (Prior to this it could apparently not be referred to as a church . . .) We saw footage of this inauguration, and the sight of the church filled with people, presided over by the Pope, was truly awe-inspiring and rather moving. I knew La Sagrada Familia was a must-see item in Barcelona, but I didn't expect to be quite as impressed! There are several other Gaudi designs around Barcelona, including some houses and a park, which we are now hoping to see.

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