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The meaning of a masterpiece

By David Wilson

Even though it’s still under construction, the Basílica de la Sagrada Família is the most famous building in Spain’s second-largest city, Barcelona. Its designer, Antoni Gaudí, invested it with multiple layers of religious meaning when he signed on to the project in 1883. He couldn’t have imagined that it would acquire a whole new meaning before it was finished.

Nothing prepares you for the astonishment of seeing the Sagrada Família up close. Its eight gnarled spires — eventually there will be 18, including the tallest one in Europe — reach jubilantly into the clear blue Catalonian sky. Biblical symbolism drips like melting wax from the stone facade. Inside, soaring tree-like pillars culminate in a light-bathed vault that beckons mortals to contemplate the infinite. Even the most cathedral-weary European traveller will find this church utterly arresting.

The Sagrada Família attracts over three million visitors a year, but it’s doubtful that Gaudí ever envisioned it as a tourist magnet. He was an intensely devout Catholic who hoped his building would secure a place for Christianity into the 20th century. 

When construction began in 1882, Barcelona was about one-seventh of its size today. The site purchased for the basilica stood on the outskirts but within a swath of land designated for development as the city began to strain at its old boundaries. It has taken so long to construct the basilica that the city has grown up around it. Today, the Sagrada Família is the centrepiece of a densely packed neighbourhood.

In the late 19th century, Spain was still a staunchly Catholic country. The extraordinary building rising in their midst would have made sense to the residents of the growing city — it told the story of their faith and spoke to something greater than themselves. They probably felt a kinship with earlier generations who lived in the shadows of Europe’s other great churches.

Those buildings were conceived, constructed and completed when Europe was deeply religious and churches enjoyed enormous influence. The climate today is vastly different. Religious belief and practice in Europe is declining, and Spain is one of the countries where it’s falling the fastest. Studies show that the number of Spaniards who profess a belief in God has plunged nearly 30 percent since the early 1980s. It’s likely the trend will continue: in 2005, only 14 percent of young people in Spain described themselves as religious.

The seas of secularism are rising all around Gaudí’s masterpiece, yet the work of building it continues, funded by tourist euros and private donations. The plan is to complete it by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

Then what? More and more people will visit the basilica, yet fewer and fewer of them will identify with its message. When I visited this spring, I imagined the pious, ascetic Gaudí mortified by the hordes of tourists attracted more to the building’s idiosyncrasies than to its intended meaning. But I was reminded that in addition to being a man of faith, Gaudí was also an architect, an engineer and a scientist. It’s possible he would have enjoyed the secular adoration.

The Sagrada Família today is more of a monument than a place of faith. Some argue that enough is enough, and work on the building should stop. But perhaps its changing context merits a new kind of appreciation: it brings people together to experience its singular beauty. Finishing it will only make it more beautiful. Shared beauty is not the same as holiness, but in these times, maybe it’s enough. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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