Barcelona Catechism

by Pablo Alvarez Funes, appearing in Volume 19

A few days after the consecration of the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona by His Holiness Benedict XVI, the famous Gaudí building was awarded with the Barcelona Prize for Architecture and Planning as the best project built in the city in 2010, even though the basilica was begun in 1882 and is still not completed. Together, the two events point to the significance of this church in a city both receptive of the avant-garde, but also appreciative of its own architectural patrimony.

Brief History

The origins of the La Sagrada Familia began in 1866, when Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer founded the Spiritual Association of Devotees of San Jose, which, from 1874, promoted the construction of an expiatory church—whose construction only can be funded by donations—devoted to the Holy Family. In 1881, the Association bought a plot of land of 12,800 square meters, the equivalent to two city blocks, for the church. The foundation stone was laid on March 19, 1882, commencing a neo-Gothic design by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. A short time later, owing to disagreements with the promoters, he resigned and the commission was handed over to Antoni Gaudí in 1883.

Images of the Basilica as built (left) and as planned (right) illustrates the tremendous amount of work that is still necessary to complete the project. Photo:

Gaudí began with the crypt, which was finished in 1889, then turned to the apse, where construction work went at a good pace. After receiving a large anonymous gift, Gaudí decided to design a different and larger building. He rejected the neo-Gothic project and proposed a more monumental and innovative one, in terms of forms, structures, and construction, consisting in a Latin cruciform plan and high towers. Gaudí’s new project carried a major symbolic load in both its architectural and sculptural forms, aiming at nothing less than an explanation of the Church.

After 1914, Gaudi devoted himself exclusively to La Sagrada Família, which is the reason why there are no other major works from the last years of his life. He became so involved that he lived his last few months right next to his workshop, in a room beside the apse used for making scale models, doing sketches and drawings, sculptures, and photographic work. In 1926 he died as a result of a tragic accident in which he was run over by a tram. He was buried in Carmen Chapel in the crypt of La Sagrada Família, where his remains lie today.

Various architects have directed the project since the death of Gaudi, most recently Jordi Bonet i Armengol, who has been director since 1984. In July 1936, at the beginning of Spanish Civil War, revolutionaries set fire to the crypt, burned the Temporary Schools of La Sagrada Família and destroyed the workshop. At that time all original plans, drawings, and photographs were lost, and some scaled plaster models were smashed.

Nevertheless, since then construction works have continued, thanks to donations and an intensive study of sketches and writings left by the architect. In 1953, during the thirty-fifth International Eucharistic Congress held in Barcelona, artistic illumination on the Nativity facade was opened. In 1981 a square in front of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família was opened, with a splendid pool and fountain, whose waters reflect the temple. The following year, marking the Foundation Stone centenary, the temple was visited by Pope John Paul II. Similarly, 2007 marked the 125th anniversary of foundation stone. And in 2010, coinciding with the end of construction works in the central nave, the basilica was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI. It is estimated that the work will be finished by 2026, centennial of Gaudí’s death.

The Gothic influence is clearly seen in the traditional latin cross plan and the radiating sanctuary chapels. Photo:


The basilica occupies a block in the Eixample district of Barcelona; this urban extension was designed in 1859 by engineer Ildefonso Cerdá and it continues to set the city’s urban development today. Each block is a square of 113.2 meters (372 feet) and streets are 20 meters (65 feet) wide, forming a uniform grid. The Temple is built on this plot, with overall dimensions 110 x 80 meters, similar to Spanish cathedrals like Toledo (120m x 59m) and Segovia (105m x 50m), and the cathedral of Barcelona (90m x 50m). For comparison, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is 212m x 140m.

Gaudi designed a vertical church, which is visible from any point in the city and stands out from the skyline. He designed eighteen towers, which includes the twelve dedicated to the Apostles, a transept dome tower dedicated to Jesus, four towers for the evangelists around the transept tower dome, and another dome above the apse dedicated to Holy Virgin. They have different heights: on the Nativity Facade, exterior towers are 98 meters and the central ones 107 meters; on the Passion Facade, 102 and 112 meters; on the Gloria Facade, 109 and 119 meters; on the Holy Virgin tower, 120 meters; the Evangelists’ towers, 128 meters; and the Jesus tower, 170 meters.

The towers serve as bell towers, and contain a total of eighty-four bells, which are common and tubular ones: the Nativity Façade has tubular percussion bells; the Passion Façade has tubular resonating bells; the Glory Façade has tuned bells in E, A, C notes. Gaudi made complicated acoustic studies to achieve the perfect sound for them. Spiral stairs inside towers are inspired by an organic element, a type of sea snail called turret or Turritella communis.


Gaudi made a careful study of the major Gothic cathedrals as well as various experiments on its structural capacity that led him to make the most of materials and construction systems, improving structurally upon Gothic architecture itself. Gaudí’s contributions to Gothic architecture can be summarized as follows: Firstly, a double stone dome, for extending the building life; secondly, a vertical integration of efforts and reduction of horizontal thrusts, so that external structural buttresses can be removed. And finally, he devised inclined and branched columns that imitate the bough-trunk structure of a tree.

The tree columns allow for the construction without exterior buttressing. Photo:

The architect came to this solution after a long and careful empirical study of invested load by means of ropes or cables and graphic calculations. With these models he determined the inclination of the supporting tree-columns and optimized structural behavior to transmit loads to its core. In this way elements work in compression and bent elements are minimized. This also brings down loads to major interior pillars and not to perimeter buttresses. Gaudi made these empirical models from a catenary which was loaded with small bags of sand to get the inverted profile of the vault, which was then photographed or could be checked in a mirror as can be seen today in the Temple museum.

Gaudi’s sand bag model allowed him to calculate the most natural shape of the structure. Photo:

Although the initial intention was to build the basilica entirely in stone, Gaudi included the structural use of steel and concrete in the calculations; he was one of the pioneers in the use of these materials in Spain. Different calculation records are preserved together with their structural patterns; both of them have been the basis for calculations and contemporary construction.



Gaudi was a man with deep religious convictions and he designed the church as a huge catechism where teaching is not limited to decoration but the architectural structure is itself a Christian symbol. He designed a Latin cross plan with main altar above the crypt, surrounded by seven apsidal chapels. Facing the altar there is a three-aisled transept that leads to the Nativity and Passion Façades. Longitudinally there is a central body with five naves and Glory Façade. The church also includes a cloister surrounding the building used for processions and to isolate the building from the exterior; nearby, next to the presbytery, there are two sacristies, including the Assumption Chapel. Close to the Glory Façade there are two large circular chapels for baptism and confession. Inside, the church has galleries for singers.

The towers have a parabolic profile, and different appearances depending on what they represent: those of the Apostles are topped by pinnacles with Venetian polychrome mosaic of shields with the cross and white spheres, symbolizing the bishop’s mitre. These pinnacles also include the episcopal ring and crosier, as well as the initial letter of each apostle. Also there are several inscriptions as “Hosanna,” “Excelsis,” and “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.” Each tower has its name inscribed in Latin and the word “Apostolus” along with a sculpture depicting each Apostle.

The Evangelists towers will be topped with allegorical figures representing them in Christian iconography: an eagle, a lion, an angel, and a bull.

The Mary tower, currently unfinished, will be situated over the apse, and topped by a large twelve-pointed star, which symbolizes the morning star. Finally, the Jesus tower will be crowned by a cross, fifteen meters high. Its central part includes a lamb, and the inscription “Tu solus Sanctus, Tu solus Dominus, Tu solus Altissimus” and the words “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” Each arm of the cross will have powerful lighting beams will be visible from great distances.

Inside, Gaudí devised a complex iconography, adapting all its elements to liturgical rites. For this he was inspired by Catholic calendar, Roman Missal, and the Ceremonial of Bishops. For Gaudí, the building was a hymn of praise to God, in which every stone was a stanza. The exterior of the basilica represents the Church through the Apostles, the Evangelists, the Holy Virgin, and Jesus, whose main tower symbolizes the Church’s triumph. The inside the nave symbolizes the Universal Church, while the transepts represent the Heavenly Jerusalem, mystical symbol of peace.

The building of a church of this size could not be unconnected with controversy. In 1965 a manifesto against the continuation of construction works was signed and published by notable Modernist architects, artists, and writers including Le Corbusier, Josep Lluis Sert, Bruno Zevi, Joan Miro, Antoni Tapies, Ricardo Bofill, Camilo Jose Cela, Gil de Biedma, and Joseph Maria Subirachs. On the one hand, the signers argued against continuing construction on urban and aesthetic grounds derived from Modernism, and on the other, for leaving the building as it was at Gaudí’s death as a cenotaph for the architect. These objections dovetailed with general objections by the communist and atheist groups of Spain to the religious and decorative nature of such a prominent work. The most obvious effect of this letter was that one of the signees, Subirachs, eventually took part in the construction works, and made the controversially Modernist sculptures for the Passion façade.

The Passion Facade of Subirachs illustrates the movement away from Gaudí‘s elaborately ornate design toward a more stripped down modernist aesthetic. Photo:

The highly ornamented Nativity Facade of Gaudí Photo:

Furthermore, the incorporation of Subirachs’ sculptural work within the church’s construction constituted an aesthetically radical change in Gaudí’s design, which was moved from the naturalism in Nativity Facade to raw expressionism in the Passion Façade. Such a change clearly diverged from Gaudí’s artistic intent and represents a concession to the modernist and iconoclastic critics of Spain. However, defenders of Subirachs’ work point out that Gaudí himself made clear in his writings and designs that the Passion Façade would pose greater aesthetic difficulties. Moreover, the sculptor claimed that his sculptures were inspired directly by details in Gaudi buildings and chimneys in Batlló House. He even used a bust of the architect for statues in the Veronica sculptural group.

Like the Eiffel Tower, which was initially rejected by Parisian artistic elite in the late nineteenth century and later becoming an icon for an entire country, the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia has become a symbol of Barcelona and Spanish architecture while the recent consecration of the Basilica by His Holiness Benedict XVI reaffirmed the church’s foundational intention, which still stands as a symbol of the Incarnation amidst the Barcelona skyline.