Legendary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí designed La Sagrada Familia in the 19th century and it’s still under construction. The intricate combination of Gothic and art nouveau makes for a stunning building. Visit the church and you’ll soon see why it’s taking so long.
Initially intended to be a simple Roman Catholic church dedicated to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the church ultimately became the most prominent example of Catalan Modernism. Pope Benedict XVI declared it a basilica in 2010.
Dreamed up by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, the basilica exemplifies Gaudí’s philosophy that nature is the work of God. Gaudí sought to combine Christian speech and biblical allegories with complex natural symbols like organic, geometric shapes which are prominent in every column, pinnacle and stained glass window of the basilica.
The end result is an astounding architectural masterpiece which, despite being unfinished and under construction for nearly 140 years, has become one of the most visited monuments in Spain, receiving 4.7 million visitors in 2019.
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, shortened as the Sagrada Família, is an unfinished church in the Eixample district of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. It is the largest unfinished Catholic church in the world. Designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), his work on Sagrada Família is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On 7 November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the church and proclaimed it a minor basilica.
On 19 March 1882, construction of the Sagrada Família began under architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. In 1883, when Villar resigned, Gaudí took over as chief architect, transforming the project with his architectural and engineering style, combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. Gaudí devoted the remainder of his life to the project, and he is buried in the church’s crypt. At the time of his death in 1926, less than a quarter of the project was complete.
Relying solely on private donations, the Sagrada Família’s construction progressed slowly and was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. In July 1936, anarchists from the FAI set fire to the crypt and broke their way into the workshop, partially destroying Gaudí’s original plans. In 1939, Francesc de Paula Quintana took over site management, which was able to go on due to the material that was saved from Gaudí’s workshop and that was reconstructed from published plans and photographs. Construction resumed to intermittent progress in the 1950s. Advancements in technologies such as computer-aided design and computerised numerical control (CNC) have since enabled faster progress and construction passed the midpoint in 2010. However, some of the project’s greatest challenges remain, including the construction of ten more spires, each symbolising an important Biblical figure in the New Testament. It was anticipated that the building would be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death, but this has now been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Describing the Sagrada Família, art critic Rainer Zerbst said “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art”, and Paul Goldberger describes it as “the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages”. The basilica is not the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Barcelona, as that title belongs to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia .
When Gaudí died in 1926, only the Nativity facade, one bell tower, the apse, and the crypt were finished; his disciple Domènec Sugranyes subsequently took over the project. Gaudí, whose tomb is beneath the cathedral, knew he would not live to see the completion of his vision, believing it would take 200 years—but, as he said, “The patron of this project is not in a hurry.” The works of Gaudí, including the Nativity facade and the crypt of the Sagrada Família, were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. In 2010 the uncompleted church was consecrated for religious worship and designated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI.
The style of the Sagrada Família is variously likened to Spanish Late Gothic, Catalan Modernism or Art Nouveau. While the Sagrada Família falls within the Art Nouveau period, Nikolaus Pevsner points out that, along with Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, Gaudí carried the Art Nouveau style far beyond its usual application as a surface decoration.
While never a cathedral, the Sagrada Família was planned from the outset to be a large building, comparable in size to a cathedral. Its ground-plan has obvious links to earlier Spanish cathedrals such as Burgos Cathedral, León Cathedral and Seville Cathedral. In common with Catalan and many other European Gothic cathedrals, the Sagrada Família is short in comparison to its width, and has a great complexity of parts, which include double aisles, an ambulatory with a chevet of seven apsidal chapels, a multitude of steeples and three portals, each widely different in structure as well as ornament. Where it is common for cathedrals in Spain to be surrounded by numerous chapels and ecclesiastical buildings, the plan of the Sagrada Família has an unusual feature: a covered passage or cloister which forms a rectangle enclosing the church and passing through the narthex of each of its three portals. With this peculiarity aside, the plan, influenced by Villar’s crypt, barely hints at the complexity of Gaudí’s design or its deviations from traditional church architecture. There are no exact right angles to be seen inside or outside the church, and few straight lines in the design.
Gaudí’s original design calls for a total of eighteen spires, representing in ascending order of height the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ. Eleven spires have been built as of 2022, corresponding to four apostles at the Nativity façade and four apostles at the Passion façade, two of the evangelists Luke and Mark, and the Virgin Mary.
According to the 2005 “Works Report” of the project’s official website, drawings signed by Gaudí and recently found in the Municipal Archives, indicate that the spire of the Virgin was in fact intended by Gaudí to be shorter than those of the evangelists. The spire height will follow Gaudí’s intention, which according to the report will work with the existing foundation.
The Evangelists’ spires will be surmounted by sculptures of their traditional symbols: a winged bull (Saint Luke), a winged man (Saint Matthew), an eagle (Saint John), and a winged lion (Saint Mark). The central spire of Jesus Christ is to be surmounted by a giant cross; its total height (172.5 metres (566 ft)) will be less than that of Montjuïc hill in Barcelona, as Gaudí believed that his creation should not surpass God’s. The lower spires are surmounted by communion hosts with sheaves of wheat and chalices with bunches of grapes, representing the Eucharist. Plans call for tubular bells to be placed within the spires, driven by the force of the wind, and driving sound down into the interior of the church. Gaudí performed acoustic studies to achieve the appropriate acoustic results inside the temple. However, only one bell is currently in place.
The completion of the spires will make Sagrada Família the tallest church building in the world—11 metres taller than the current record-holder, Ulm Minster, which is 161.5 metres (530 ft) at its highest point.
On 19 April 2011, an arsonist started a small fire in the sacristy which forced the evacuation of tourists and construction workers. The sacristy was damaged, and the fire took 45 minutes to contain.
On 11 March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain, construction temporarily stopped and the basilica was closed. This was the first time the construction had been halted since the Spanish Civil War. The Gaudí House Museum in Park Güell was also closed. The basilica reopened, initially to key workers, on 4 July 2020.
On 29 November 2021, a 7 m (23 ft) twelve-pointed illuminated crystal star was installed on one of the main towers of the basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary. There were concerns about plans to build a large stairway leading up to the basilica’s main entrance, unfinished at the time, which could require the demolition of three city blocks, the homes to 1,000 people as well as some businesses.
The Sagrada Família was inspired by a bookseller, José María Bocabella, founder of Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph). After a visit to the Vatican in 1872, Bocabella returned from Italy with the intention of building a church inspired by the basilica at Loreto. The apse crypt of the church, funded by donations, was begun 19 March 1882, on the festival of St. Joseph, to the design of the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, whose plan was for a Gothic revival church of a standard form. The apse crypt was completed before Villar’s resignation on 18 March 1883, when Antoni Gaudí assumed responsibility for its design, which he changed radically. Gaudi began work on the church in 1883 but was not appointed Architect Director until 1884.
On the subject of the extremely long construction period, Gaudí is said to have remarked: “My client is not in a hurry.” When Gaudí died in 1926, the basilica was between 15 and 25 percent complete. After Gaudí’s death, work continued under the direction of his main disciple Domènec Sugrañes i Gras until interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Parts of the unfinished basilica and Gaudí’s models and workshop were destroyed during the war by Catalan anarchists. The present design is based on reconstructed versions of the plans that were burned in a fire as well as on modern adaptations. Since 1940, the architects Francesc Quintana, Isidre Puig Boada, Lluís Bonet i Gari and Francesc Cardoner have carried on the work. The illumination was designed by Carles Buïgas. The director until 2012 was the son of Lluís Bonet, Jordi Bonet i Armengol. Armengol began introducing computers into the design and construction process in the 1980s.
The central nave vaulting was completed in 2000 and the main tasks since then have been the construction of the transept vaults and apse. In 2002, the Sagrada Família Schools building was relocated from the eastern corner of the site to the southern corner, and began housing an exhibition. The school was originally designed by Gaudí in 1909 for the children of the construction workers.
As of 2006, work concentrated on the crossing and supporting structure for the main steeple of Jesus Christ as well as the southern enclosure of the central nave, which will become the Glory façade. Computer-aided design technology has allowed stone to be shaped off-site by a CNC milling machine, whereas in the 20th century the stone was carved by hand.nIn 2008, some renowned Catalan architects advocated halting construction to respect Gaudí’s original designs, which, although they were not exhaustive and were partially destroyed, have been partially reconstructed in recent years.
Since 2013, AVE high-speed trains have passed near the Sagrada Família through a tunnel that runs beneath the centre of Barcelona. The tunnel’s construction, which began on 26 March 2010, was controversial. The Ministry of Public Works of Spain (Ministerio de Fomento) claimed the project posed no risk to the church. Sagrada Família engineers and architects disagreed, saying there was no guarantee that the tunnel would not affect the stability of the building. The Board of the Sagrada Família (Patronat de la Sagrada Família) and the neighborhood association AVE pel Litoral (AVE by the Coast) led a campaign against this route for the AVE, without success. In October 2010, the tunnel boring machine reached the church underground under the location of the building’s principal façade. Service through the tunnel was inaugurated on 8 January 2013. Track in the tunnel makes use of a system by Edilon Sedra in which the rails are embedded in an elastic material to dampen vibrations. No damage to the Sagrada Família has been reported to date.
The main nave was covered and an organ installed in mid-2010, allowing the still-unfinished building to be used for liturgies. The church was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI on 7 November 2010 in front of a congregation of 6,500 people. A further 50,000 people followed the consecration Mass from outside the basilica, where more than 100 bishops and 300 priests were on hand to distribute Holy Communion.
In 2012, Barcelona-born Jordi Faulí i Oller took over as architect of the project. Mark Burry of New Zealand serves as Executive Architect and Researcher. Sculptures by J. Busquets, Etsuro Sotoo and the controversial Josep Maria Subirachs decorate the fantastical façades.
Chief architect Jordi Faulí announced in October 2015 that construction was 70 percent complete and had entered its final phase of raising six immense steeples. The steeples and most of the church’s structure were planned be completed by 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death; as of a 2017 estimate, decorative elements should be complete by 2030 or 2032. Visitor entrance fees of €15 to €20 finance the annual construction budget of €25 million.
Starting on 9 July 2017, an international mass is celebrated at the basilica every Sunday and holy day of obligation, at 9 a.m., and is open to the public (until the church is full). Occasionally, Mass is celebrated at other times, where attendance requires an invitation. When masses are scheduled, instructions to obtain an invitation are posted on the basilica’s website. In addition, visitors may pray in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and Penitence.
In 2018, the stone type needed for the construction was found in a quarry in Brinscall, near Chorley, England.
Even with today’s technology, skilled architects and engineers are finding it challenging to decipher and bring to life the complex geometric shapes that compose what is going to be the tallest church in the world (172.5m).
In addition, despite its international renown, the Sagrada Família is a project that was promoted by the people for the people, so it has always relied on private donations. There have been times in history when there wasn’t any funding, especially during Spain’s Civil War and the decades that followed. It was only after the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when the city started to gain an international reputation and the number of visitors increased, that construction accelerated exponentially.
The Sagrada Família was expected to be completed in 2026 – for the centenary of Gaudí’s death – but its completion has been postponed because of COVID-19. Work has resumed already but a new completion date hasn’t been announced.
The site of the Sagrada Família has four main sections: the basilica, the school building, museum and towers. In the past, each section required its own ticket to visit. However, due to COVID-19, the only portion available to visitors is the basilica.
To visit the basilica, an individual ticket with an audio-guide app – available in 16 languages – costs €26. If you prefer visiting it on a guided tour – available in 6 languages – an individual ticket costs €27, which also allows you to visit the site on your own after the 50-minute tour is finished.
The Basilica is composed of five naves, built in the shape of a Latin cross, the roof of which is supported by the angled pillars. These angled pillars are a treelike column structure that creates the effect of a living forest with dappled light streaming in.
Four towers representing the 12 apostles ascend from each of the three exterior facades (Nativity, Passion and Glory). Gaudí built the Nativity Facade, and in 2005 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the crypt. On the west side is the controversial Passion Facade, whose architect, Josep Maria Subirachs, has been heavily criticized for being too abstract and not strictly following Gaudí’s model. The unfinished Glory Facade is supposed to be the most gorgeous of the three once it’s complete and crowned with its missing four towers.
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