Over twenty years ago we voraciously devoured the Ken Follett historical novel “Pillars of the Earth,” a huge volume about a 12th century stonemason who dreams of building a massive cathedral unlike anything seen before. Tom Builder begins his life’s work knowing that it will not be completed in his lifetime but trusting that it will be finished. And we couldn’t help but compare this fictional character to the real life Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, who collaborated with the Catholic Church to design and oversee the construction of La Sagrada Familia, the most iconic structure in Barcelona. Begun in 1882 and still under construction today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was consecrated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and is Barcelona’s number one tourist site, welcoming over 3,000,000 visitors a year.
Outside, the cranes tower over the basilica’s spires, plastic sheeting covers parts of the exterior and everywhere, throngs of people stand: in long lines behind the gates, shorter lines awaiting admittance with their e-tickets, s-curved lines at the stands for audio headsets and lines awaiting entrance into the church itself.Those not in lines gather alongside the walls with their heads tipped back and looking up, up, up, examining the carvings and sculptures, stories in stone, cameras clicking.
And inside … We join the throng of people surging into the central nave and extricate ourselves as quickly as possible to stand quietly for a few moments trying to absorb the vast space. Organ music swells in the background and reverberates around us, voices are muted and there is the sound of shuffling feet. We are awestruck.
Above us the giant, tree-like pillars reach from earth to heaven, branches touching and supporting the spectacular vaulted ceiling. Light filters in from enormous panels of stained glass through the branches and pillars of granite, basalt, porphyry and Montjuïc stone. The noise from the crowd fades and we are in nature’s hallowed forest.
Much has been written of La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s final work and all-consuming obsession. Gaudi, like the fictionalized stonemason of “Pillars of The Earth” was well aware that he would never live to see his life’s work completed and is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry.” At the time of his death in 1926 the church was approximately twenty percent completed and construction was expected to last for a few more centuries in a time when all stone was carved by hand.
With advances in technology, machines to shape and tool the stone and computer-aided design, the hope is to finish the basilica in 2026, a century after Gaudi’s death. Private benefactors sponsored the initial construction and Gaudi contributed his own money as well. At present the money received from ticket sales as well as donations from Friends of La Sagrada Família fund the continuing work at the site.
Perhaps a highlight of our almost two-hour visit was the organ recital at noon of Ave Maria. We were totally moved as we stood in the sublime surroundings of the central nave. For people who profess no religious affiliations or interest we seem to find ourselves in churches and cathedrals rather often during the course of our travels. Churches are often the place where a city displays its best architecture and art and the structure becomes linked with both a city’s history and identity. This most certainly is true as La Sagrada Familia has become Barcelona’s signature emblem.
By Anita and Richard