Simon Courtauld

Towering tree of God

The Sagrada Família is due to be completed within the next decade. If so, will that detract from its mysterious spell?

Towering tree of God
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The Sagrada Família:Gaudí’s Heaven on Earth

Gijs van Hensbergen

Bloomsbury, pp. 204, £

In his biography of Gaudí, published in 2001, Gijs van Hensbergen opined that ‘we should never try to finish the Sagrada Família, otherwise we undo the web of power that is elaborately woven into this mysterious religious spell’. But he now appears to take the view that it should, and will, be finished by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death (though the sculpted decoration will take considerably longer to complete). If indeed this extraordinary building is ‘topped out’ in nine years’ time, it will have taken 144 years to build, which is a good deal less than many medieval cathedrals (Toledo’s took more than 250 years). Gaudí famously said, ‘My client is not in a hurry,’ but after the Sagrada Família was consecrated and proclaimed a basilica by His representative on earth in 2010, it was reasonable to infer that those responsible were being encouraged to get on with it.

Gaudí was appointed architect of the Sagrada Família in 1883, 18 months after the first stone was laid. He inherited a neo-Gothic design for the crypt, which he took six years to finish, before embarking on his revolutionary ideas for the church above. He planned it, in van Hensbergen’s words, ‘not just as an intermediary between heaven and earth but also as a battlefield of the senses’.

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As a child growing up on the Catalan coast, Gaudí’s fascination with the shapes of shellfish, the pebbles on the shore, the branches of trees, the light on a spider’s web, would inform his architectural development and his rejection of straight lines. Allied to his reverence for nature and the power of light, Gaudí used a design technique which dispensed with the flying buttresses of traditional Gothic churches in order to give more of an impression of heavenly space.

When not working on his other buildings, Gaudí spent most of his time on the great Nativity façade of the Sagrada Família, as the first instalment of his ambition to create a language of architecture and faith which would reflect the alma of Spain. The Tragic Week in 1909, when churches and convents in Barcelona were burnt, graves desecrated and nuns raped, had a profound, cathartic effect on Gaudí. Thereafter, working exclusively on his expiatory temple for the rest of his life, he became obsessed with sin and suffering, went to confession daily and led an increasingly ascetic life. He devoted all his energies to his celestial city, his towering tree of God, as van Hensbergen aptly puts it, in pursuit of his vision of universal peace.

From caricatures of the time, Gaudí looked rather like a bearded, lugubrious Mister Magoo, while having a live donkey trussed up and lifted so that it could be accurately modelled for the Flight into Egypt, and using plaster casts of stillborn babies to represent Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. He was still sculpting the Nativity façade, though the first tower had been finished, when he was fatally run over by a bus (to be precise, a tram) in 1926.

Had he been alive ten years later, at the outbreak of the civil war, he would have been torn by his devotion to the Catholic church, which supported the Nationalists, and to the Catalan culture and language which Franco ruthlessly suppressed. (Gaudí always refused to speak Castilian Spanish, even to Alfonso XIII who came to admire his work.)

In the summer of 1936 anarchists burnt Gaudí’s drawings, models and workshops, desecrated tombs in the crypt and disinterred corpses; but, as in 1909, the façade and towers of the church were left standing. George Orwell, in Barcelona with the anti-Stalinist POUM militia, thought the building so hideous that ‘the anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance’.

It was not until the 1950s that work on the Sagrada Família was resumed, with donations mostly from Catalans, despite opposition from the Catalan artists Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies and the architect Le Corbusier. Computer models based on the few plans which survived the civil war were now used to construct the Passion façade, and in 1986 the Catalan Josep Subirachs was employed to do the sculpting. His work, using hard lines instead of curves, and influenced by Henry Moore and Eduardo Chillida rather than by Gaudí, has been criticised by art critics as rampant kitsch and awful beyond description.

Van Hensbergen gives a fascinating and instructive account of the sculpture of both the Nativity and Passion façades, and is perhaps overly sympathetic to Subirachs. One longs for a visual comparison of the two, but — a culpable omission — the book has no illustrations. As far as can be judged, but only from the author’s description, the current official sculptor of the Sagrada Família, the Japanese Etsuro Sotoo, has done a better job of interpreting the spirit and the spirituality of the master.

When Gaudí undertook his project, he wanted to accommodate 13,000 worshippers — at a time when Catholicism was losing its hold on the Spanish people. In 2016 four million people (11,000 for every day of the year) visited the Sagrada Família, not necessarily to worship but to gaze at this truly awesome building. Anyone going there for the first time should read van Hensbergen’s perceptive interpretation of what he calls Gaudí’s most quixotic work. It is the right word: Gaudí said that in the Sagrada Família everything is providential, and, like the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, he was susceptible to enchantment and a bit mad. God should be thanked for his madness.