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Observations placeholder

Gaudi - Professional work - 04 The Sagrada Família



Type of Spiritual Experience


The bottom picture is of a mandala, and the overall plan and general layout of this church keeps to the rules in all sacred geography and shown in the mandala.  The circle [now destroyed by buildings] is the cosmic egg [see Map of Egg]Rectangles are the Earth layer, then above that , the spiritual is being describe - Water, Air, Fire, with the Unmoving mover [God - the Ultimate Intelligence and all the Intelligences] being at the centre.  Their importance is indicated by the height of the 'mountains' [towers] in the centre.  There would have been four 'gates' at one time to the rectangular base.  Think of the mandala as a plan for a 3D building and you can see that the rules for sacred geometry are universal.  Mount Meru lives in Barcelona!!

A description of the experience

The Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Família (1883 – 2026?) is possibly Gaudí’s biggest project and greatest obsession.

He took on the Sagrada Familia in 1883, and worked on it for the rest of his life. 

For the first few years he combined work on the Sagrada Familia with other projects, but in 1910, after he had finished the Casa Milá, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to this project.

The unexpected death of the architect in 1926, and the loss of most of the plans and mock-ups during the Civil War, left the work unfinished.

It passed through the hands of different architects and, as I write, is still under construction. 

There is now light at the end of the tunnel, however, as culmination of the church is scheduled for 2026.  Then it is hoped the façade of the Gloria and the towers will be finished.  If these plans come to fruition, the Sagrada Familia will be the tallest building in Barcelona at 172 metres.

Gaudi, symbolism and sacred architecture

The Sagrada Família is built using the principles of sacred architecture - the structures used represent a spiritual truth, object or entity. 

It is a ‘palace’ in sacred geography terms, a palace for God, but the towers are symbolically ‘mountains’ whose height indicates the importance of the spiritual being represented. 

Each one of the set of 18 towers - 12 dedicated to the apostles, 4 to the evangelists, one to the Virgin Mary and the final and largest to Jesus Christ are thus Intelligences.

Gaudi employed the ‘three worlds’ principle [also employed by artists like Hieronymous Bosch and by the Nordic mystic system] of an underworld, an earth level, and heaven.  The underworld is the crypt, the Earth level is indeed at earth level [see circle right] and the roof and all the towers are then 'heaven', which in the Nordic system were the 'gods' and in the Christian system are the apostles.  Ultimately the soaring arches and flower decoration of the roof is the Tree of Life.  The Virgin Mary is then the 'Mother' in the system and Jesus representative of the FatherThe Creation – Nature in all its glory is represented by the church itself.  Its design is very like a three dimensional mandala as we see above.

The Sustainable Cities Collective - Gaudi's Masterpiece - Nature-Inspired Architecture by Joe Peach [also in December issue of National Geographic magazine]

One of Antoni Gaudi's most famous and often-repeated phrases was, 'originality is returning to the origin.' For Gaudi, a deeply religious man, this origin was Nature. Gaudi viewed the natural world as perfect, a creation from which he drew inspiration. Nowhere is this connection more clearly visible than in his masterpiece, Barcelona's Sagrada Familia.
Both during Gaudi's lifetime and following his death, his work was considered to be revolutionary. Unlike most architects, Gaudi did not spend his time drawing plans in two dimensions. He worked with clay, rock, rope, paper, and any other moldable medium available. He expressed his plans and intentions through models and used live plants, animals, and humans as references. Gaudi did not view himself as revolutionary – he simply sought to replicate the perfection he saw in nature.  Adrian Bejan has described Gaudi as:
“A tightrope walker on the line of bridging art and science. He understood that nature is constructed by laws of mathematics. What is strongest is inherently lightest and most efficient”.

Gaudí used highly symbolic content in the Sagrada Família, both in the architecture and the sculptures, it is no accident that the nave is a ‘forest’ of columns made to mimic trees

Symbolically each of us is a tree, a miniature version of the overall cosmos.  If you like to think of it another way, symbolically the cosmos is like a Russian Doll, with dolls within dolls within dolls. 
Every one of us 'trees' of the earth layer - the congregation of the church -  is reaching heavenward, soaring with arms high [technically known as the Orans position] trying to reach the Light.  The nave in the Sagrada Familia has a hyperboloid vault and as you can see each pillar has branches rising up to the roof.

The hyperboloid vaults have their center where Gothic vaults had their keystone, and the hyperboloid allows for a hole in this space to let natural light in - or Light if you prefer.

In the intersection between vaults, where Gothic vaults have ribs, the hyperboloid allows for holes as well, which Gaudí employed to give the impression of a 'starry sky' - heaven above.

Other symbolic ornamentation included:

  • honeycomb gates;
  • a vine-inspired frieze,
  • egg-shaped windows,
  • gargoyles depicting animals and
  • pinnacles in the form of crystals.

The Sagrada Familia “strived to compress all of earth and heaven into its structure – endless saints, biblical scenes, symbols, inscriptions, seashells, reptiles, birds, flowers and fruit.” according to Rowan Moore in The Observer.  The Tree of Life - the Creation both symbolically and actually.

Right, the diamond

The Sagrada Família has a cruciform [cross shaped] plan, with a five-aisled nave, a transept of three aisles, and an apse with seven chapels. It has three facades dedicated to the birth, passion and glory of Jesus, and when completed it will have eighteen towers: four at each side making a total of twelve for the apostles, four on the transept invoking the evangelists and one on the apse dedicated to the Virgin, plus the central tower in honour of Jesus, which will reach 170 metres (560 ft) in height.

The church will have two sacristies [a room in a church where a priest prepares for a service, and where vestments and articles of worship are kept] adjacent to the apse, and three large chapels: one for the Assumption in the apse, and the Baptism and Penitence chapels at the west end; also, it will be surrounded by a cloister designed for processions and to isolate the building from the exterior.  One wonders how many of these are Gaudi's and how many are simply a throw-back to earlier architectural styles and added by later architects unfamiliar with sacred architecture.

In many cases, Gaudi combined structural with symbolic, which needs an especial form of genius.

The Sustainable Cities Collective - Gaudi's Masterpiece - Nature-Inspired Architecture by Joe Peach [also in December issue of National Geographic magazine]

The elements found in Gaudi's nature-inspired work, which is sometimes referred to as biomimetic architecture, can be classified as ornamental or structural. Structural elements inspired by nature include: catenary arches, spiral stairways, cone-shaped roofs, and a new type of tree-inspired column that uses hyperbolic paraboloids as its base. His tree-inspired columns could also have a smaller diameter due to the load-bearing capability designed into their multi-faced forms

Left, another symbol - rainbows, above the spiritual path found in the roof
It appears that when it was first started, that the ley lines leading to the building could be clearly seen and the church was the centre of an even larger cosmic egg, around which his other commissions, the various castles [houses and mansions], were placed, each on different levels and layers according to how Gaudi saw its owners spiritually – Earth, Water, Air, Fire, or maybe the Aether level.

The twelve apostles are the Signs of the Zodiac in Symbolism.  Then we have the correspondences used in correlating the four gospels and the Book of Revelations:

·        the angel of Saint Matthew;

·        the eagle of Saint John;

·        the lion of Saint Mark

·        the bull of Saint Luke

The intention, I am sure, was to miss out not a single symbol, but I am not sure those who followed on, after his untimely death had quite such a good grasp of the symbolism and its meaning as Gaudi.

History of the Project

Josep Maria Bocabella was the founder of the Devotees of Saint Joseph Association, which acquired a complete block of Barcelona's Eixample district in order to build a Barcelona church called Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Família).

The project was originally entrusted to Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, who planned the construction of a neo-Gothic church, on which work began in 1882. However, the following year Villar resigned due to disagreements with the construction board, and the task went to Gaudí.

At the time, Gaudi was almost overwhelmed with commissions and he realised that he was going to have to rely on his team to work on multiple projects simultaneously, if he was to accept the church commission.  So la Sagrada Família is the result of Gaudi’s artistic utopia in its most developed and co-operative form. 

Artists such as Llorenç and Joan Matamala, Carles Mani, Jaume Busquets, Joaquim Ros i Bofarull, Etsuro Sotoo and Josep Maria Subirachs (creator of the Passion facade) worked on the sculptural decoration. Gaudí's collaboration with Martorell was a determining factor in Gaudí's recommendation for the Sagrada Família.

When Gaudi took over, he completely redesigned the project, apart from the part of the crypt that had already been built. It became a consuming passion, almost the reason for his living. And indeed, Gaudí devoted the rest of his life to the construction of the church, which was to be the synthesis of all of his architectural discoveries.

After completion of the crypt and the apse, still in Gothic style, the rest of the church was conceived in his signature organic style, imitating natural shapes with their abundance of ruled surfaces. He intended the interior to resemble a forest, with inclined columns like branching trees, helicoidal in form, creating a simple but sturdy structure.

Gaudí applied all of his previous experimental findings in this project, from works such as the Park Güell and the crypt of the Colònia Güell, as well as carrying out thorough new studies on acoustics and illumination, in order to optimise them. In 1916,  he even participated in a course about Gregorian chant at the Palau de la Música Catalana taught by the Benedictine monk Gregori M. Sunyol.  His aim?  To create a church that is at once structurally perfect, harmonious and aesthetically beautiful.

One cannot help but compare the centre of a city like Los Angeles with its square sky scrapers dedicated to the gods of money and Gaudi's temple to higher things than the material acquisition of wealth.

Gaudí personally designed many of the Sagrada Família's sculptures. He would study the anatomy of the figure, concentrating on gestures. For this purpose, he studied the human skeleton and sometimes used dummies made of wire to test the appropriate posture of the figure he was about to sculpt. In a second step, he photographed his models, using a mirror system that provided multiple perspectives. He then made plaster casts of the figures, and modified the proportions of these casts to obtain the figure's desired appearance, depending on its place in the church (the higher up, the bigger it would be). Eventually, the figures were sculpted in stone.

Progress – partly because of this painstaking concentration on detail and perfection - was painfully slow.  And the decade from 1910 was an especially hard one for Gaudí in general. During this decade, the architect experienced the deaths of his niece Rosa in 1912 and his main collaborator Francesc Berenguer in 1914; a severe economic crisis which paralysed work on the Sagrada Família in 1915; the 1916 death of his friend Josep Torras i Bages, bishop of Vic; the 1917 disruption of work at the Colonia Güell; and the 1918 death of his friend and patron Eusebi Güell.

But instead of being paralysed by this onslaught of adversity, Gaudi only involved himself more to the Sagrada Família from 1915, taking refuge in his work. Gaudí confessed to his collaborators:

My good friends are dead; I have no family and no clients, no fortune nor anything. Now I can dedicate myself entirely to the Church.

Gaudí dedicated the last years of his life entirely to the "Cathedral of the Poor", as it was commonly known. Apart from his dedication to this cause, he participated in few other activities, the majority of which were related to his Catholic faith.  

Building work on the church is still ongoing, well over 140 years later and completion is not expected until at least 2026. In other words, Gaudi never saw his vision become reality.  He was born on 25 June 1852, meaning he took on the commission whilst he was still in his very early thirties.  He died – knocked down by a tram on 10th June 1926.  His coffin was placed in the crypt - a cruel symbolic act - as he deserves to have his own tower on the roof.

During Gaudí's life only the crypt, apse and part of the Nativity facade were completed. Upon his death his assistant Domènec Sugrañes took over the construction; thereafter it was directed by various architects. Jordi Bonet i Armengol assumed responsibility in 1987 and continued as of 2011.

The source of the experience

Gaudí, Antoni

Concepts, symbols and science items

Activities and commonsteps