Antoni Gaudi: God’s Architect

by Michael S. Rose, appearing in Volume 4

All the great cathedrals have taken centuries to complete. The Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) in Barcelona, Spain, is no exception. Begun in 1883, only half of this imposing church is now complete. Construction work, however, steadily continues as donations keep coming in to support the work. Architects estimate that the church will take at least another 40 years to complete. Some say it could take as many as 150 years.

Sagrada Familia is the most renowned building designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, whose cause for beatification was opened last year by the Cardinal Archbishop of Barcelona. The cathedral is a testament to the architect’s faith. In some ways, Gaudi’s Barcelona church resembles the great cathedrals of the Medieval age: Sagrada Familia was based on the plan of a Gothic basilica with five naves, a transept, an apse, and ambulatory.

It is designed with soaring towers, capped by spires, and is replete with dense symbolism throughout the structure. Gaudi, however, wanted to create a “20th century cathedral,” a synthesis of all his architectural knowledge with a visual explication of the mysteries of faith. He designed façades representing the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ; and eighteen towers, symbolizing the twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and Christ. The Christ tower, the tallest, when completed will stand some 500 feet high. To date, eight of the eighteen towers are completed. Each is of a unique spiral-shape covered in patterns of Venetian glass and mosaic crowned by the Holy Cross.

God’s Architect
“My client can wait,” was Gaudi’s genial response to his helpers when delays occurred due to his constant changes to the original plans. Gaudi always acknowledged that his ultimate client was God, whom he felt was in no hurry. The architect wanted the finest and most perfect sacred temple for his client. He truly worked ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God.

Gaudi, known as “neo-Medieval” in his day, developed a unique style of building. His work is characterized by the use of naturalistic forms, and his approach came to be known as the “biological style.” Sagrada Familia is known for its conical spires, parabolic arched doorways and freely curving lines. As in most of his work, Gaudi has created the impression the stone used was soft and modeled like clay or wax.

Gaudi directed the construction of the church from 1883 until his sudden death in 1926. He became so involved with the church that he set up residence in his onsite study and devoted the last 14 years of his life to this most important of all his projects. He regarded Sagrada Familia as a great mission. On June 7, 1926, Gaudi was hit by a street car. Three days later he died at the age of 74.

When he died, the people of Barcelona popularly proclaimed him a “saint.” There was great commotion. Even though he lived in a reserved manner, removed from the world, rumor of his sanctity had already spread. No newspaper, not even the most virulently anti-Catholic, attacked him. The director of the Museum of the Barcelona Archdiocese wrote an article calling Gaudi “God’s Architect.” His architecture is an expression of his Christian commitment. From the very beginning of the 20th century Sagrada Familia became an icon of the city of Barcelona, just as the Eiffel Tower is an icon of Paris. And after the architect’s death, the people of Barcelona regarded him as a patron of their grand city.

There have even been documented conversions resulting from the architecture of Sagrada Familia. The most prominent involved two Japanese men. One is architect Kenji Imai. He arrived in Barcelona two months after Gaudi’s death. He was traveling all over the world to meet the great architects of the day, but by the time he reached Barcelona Gaudi was dead and buried. Even so, Imai was not disappointed. Sagrada Familia made such an impression on him that, when he became a professor in Japan he gave several lectures on Gaudi and, finally, converted to Catholicism. The other convert is sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, who worked for years fashioning statues on Barcelona’s cathedral, and ultimately became a Catholic.

The Work Continues
After Gaudi’s death, work continued on the church until 1936. These were the days of the bloody Spanish Civil War. The Communists, who hated all things Catholic, set fire to Gaudí’s study which held his notes and designs for Sagrada Familia. Many of these were destroyed, but the project resumed in 1952 using the surviving drawings and models to continue the work. Today, the constructed part is open to visitors as well as the small museum that exhibits Gaudi’s original plans and models.

Later this year, Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles of Barcelona will inaugurate Sagrada Familia with a solemn Mass on December 31, the Feast of the Holy Family. The 150-foot-high central nave is scheduled to be totally roofed by that date. Referring to the Basilica’s beauty, Cardinal Carles told a Spanish newspaper: “for me it transmits an evangelical message, very much Gaudi’s style.” Perhaps for that reason, Antoni Gaudi is regarded still as “God’s Architect.”