We’ve all seen pictures of the outside of Antoni Gaudí’s church Sagrada Familia. Pictures that look a little bit like this:
And pictures like that are interesting, but not terribly exciting. Looking at these photos, it’s easy to say, “okay, this is a fairly detailed brown pile of rocks that a Lord of the Rings villain might live in. Big deal.” The photos always depict a building which commands respect but not fondness. Author George Orwell once called the Sagrada Familia “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”
I visited mainly because, let’s face it, when you go to Barcelona, you have to. But I was also beginning to suspect, based on the all-encompassing genius of Gaudí’s design for the Casa Batlló, that the Sagrada Familia had some kind of surprise in store. It does.
First of all, looking at a picture of the Sagrada Familia taken from across the street is like admiring a painting through binoculars, or listening to Beethoven being played by middle schoolers. This is not just a building; it is a great work of art, and demands to be “read” with the same intensity that we bring to our analyses of Bach or Dostoevsky or Turner. The outside is spectacularly detailed with carvings and dramatic goings-on which really only reveal themselves when you get up close. Very close. One side of the building has a little statue of a bassoon player. The bassoonist is apparently serenading baby Jesus. (You can see it by clicking the picture above and viewing it full-size. The bassoonist is above the two doors and an inch to the left.)
So the exterior of the Sagrada Familia remains a curious, intriguing but mostly pretty darn weird thing. It’s bursting with odd angles, shapes, and openings, and the dashes of color which have recently been added – a whole new facade has been finished with the colored-tiled words “Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus” on each new bell tower – are distracting against the brown canvas.
But then you step inside.
The interior of the Sagrada Familia, almost all of it constructed after Gaudí’s death but almost all of it built according to his detailed models and designs, is a masterpiece of art comparable to a Beethoven symphony, a Shakespeare play, or a Velázquez painting. I’ve long known there was an art in architecture, but the art, the genius, the beauty of the Sagrada Familia’s interior is overwhelming. I have no doubt that when it is finished, some visitors will walk in and burst into tears. Maybe it’s happened already.
The artistic medium of the outside of the Sagrada Familia is stone. The medium on which Gaudí & Co. work inside the building is light.
From the outside, you really cannot see many windows in the building; it’s covered so well by its crustacean detail that to some extent one suspects the windows are intentionally hidden. Once you step inside, you see that light is streaming in from every corner of the building. Perhaps the most notable example is the hardest to view: directly above the altar, or (since I’m not Catholic) directly above the “priests-only section,” is a spire in the roof which is not topped by a cross or any other decorative ostentation. It is a spire topped by a conical skylight.
The central section of the church is dominated by massive and creative columns: like one of those optical illusion drawings of people with three legs, the columns have eight points at the base and sixteen at the top because they gradually morph as they ascend. The design is inspired by trees, because even the peak of the columns is merely a point at which “branches” ascend in different directions. As a result, the interior looks not unlike a man-made forest.
But the interior of Sagrada Familia is, despite a signposted claim to the contrary, not complete. Only about one-third of the windows along the walls have had their stained glass added; the stained glass work only began in 2001. The artist is named Joan Vila i Grau, and his contributions are integral to the experience. In the apse of the church, or “that small curved place way at the front, behind the altar,” the stained glass windows have all been installed, and they illustrate most dramatically of all the use of light in the church.
The stained glass, see, is not the usual affair of pictures of saints or, as in many English cathedrals, parables about poor schmucks who didn’t pay all of their tithes and as a result met horrible deaths. The stained glass is abstract. Each window is a study in a certain color, in order to illuminate the immediate space with those colors. Here is how it works. This:
All around me, photographers were gasping over the unbelievable pictures they were taking. It is impossible to walk into Sagrada Familia and walk out without a great photograph. Indeed, I suspect you could spend your entire career capturing the interior and never tire of new angles, new possibilities. I didn’t, unfortunately. Halfway through my two-hour-plus visit to Sagrada Familia, my camera’s battery pack died. Few places in the world are as glorious a place for a camera to die. I almost didn’t mind. Besides, I’d already taken an exquisite series of pictures of the organ, a curved instrument lining the back of the altar. Because of its position, the organ reflected the light coming from every single stained glass window at once. This is my new desktop wallpaper:
I stayed for an hour after the camera died. La Sagrada Familia is one of my favorite buildings in the world; probably my favorite, in fact, because I’d never even thought of having a favorite building before. It is, as mentioned, an artistic masterpiece, as yet unfinished but already as capable of inspiring as Bach or, indeed, the Bible. In a sense, taking pictures of such a creation is like sketching your own copy of the Mona Lisa on the back of a Sam’s Club receipt. But then again, the experience of being there, of standing inside this massive monument to human creativity and dedication, is so overwhelming that nobody would really want it to be imitable anyways. There’s only one place in the world where you can feel the way you feel when you stand in the center of Sagrada Familia. That’s what makes it such a triumph.