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Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Sagrada Familia history
The initiative to build a new grand church came from the bookseller and chairman of the Holy Brotherhood, José Maria Bocabella, in the mid 19th century. The church would be devoted to the child Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, which is why the church is named “Sagrada Familia” – “The Holy Family”.
The planning of the church began when the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar offered to design the whole structure. He planned a more typical gothic church, but was later forced to resign from his job due to fundamental disagreements with the founder Bocabella. A few months after del Villar’s resignation, a young architect by the name of Antonio Gaudi took over the work in 1883.
What Gaudi didn’t know at the time was that his new project would take up almost all his time and effort for the rest of his life. Once the construction phase started, he soon became obsessed with the project and set up an office on site which became his permanent residence.
His plan was to build facades which would represent the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. The church would have a total of eighteen towers symbolizing the twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, and the Virgin Mary and Christ.
The one representing Christ would be the tallest and would stand 170 meters high, crowned by a large cross. The tower would be one meter less than the Montjuïc, a hill in Barcelona, as Gaudi said he didn’t want to suppress the work of God.
Gaudi devoted his last 15 years fully to the Sagrada Familia, until he by accident was hit a tram. This accident led to his death, a few days later in 1926 - 74 years old. What made Gaudi’s architectural style so exciting was his sense for shapes. Instead of designing buildings with straight lines, Gaudi worked much with loose vivid design.
The Casa Mila and the eastern façade of Sagrada Famila are perfect examples of this. Arguably, no other architect in history has ever had such an absolute influence on a city as Antoni Gaudi has had on Barcelona. There are great works of his Modernist style all over the city but the greatest of all his works is of course the impressive Sagrada Familia.
After Gaudi’s death, work continued as planned. However, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, work came to a halt and parts of Gaudi’s models and plans were destroyed. The present design is based on reconstructed versions of the lost plans as well as on modern adaptations.
Today, computer technology is being used to pre-shape the stones off site, rather than shape them on site by hand. This has significantly affected the pace of the construction and it’s now scheduled to be completed around 2020-2030.
Many believe the deadline is set to June 10th 2026, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s tragic death. On the subject of the extremely long construction period, Gaudi is said to have remarked "My client is not in a hurry."
Why visit Sagrada Familia ?
The full name of this site is Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, but it is often simply called the Sagrada Familia. Many say that if you only have time to visit one site in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia should be it. It is easy to understand why when looking at it. Even though the church is still under construction, it has become a symbol for Barcelona and the Catalonian region.
Full of symbolism
If there is something the church is full of, except enchanting beauty, then it is symbolism. Themes throughout the detailed decoration include words from the Christian liturgy. For example, the towers are decorated with words such as "Hosanna", "Excelsis" and "Sanctus", but the most detailed parts of the church are the magnificent facades.
When completed, the Church will have three grand façades: the Passion façade to the West, the Nativity façade to the East and the Glory façade to the South. The latter is the one still under construction.
The Passion façade, also known as the Façade of the Suffering Way, is most known for its unorthodox sculptures. The façade is actually designed by Gaudi during the time he suffered from a serious illness. The work was carried out later in 1989 by the sculptor Josep Subirachs, based on Gaudi’s drawings. As visitors can see, the sculptor’ style is - in contrast with Gaudi’s - very much based around sharp edges.
The façade is based around telling the story of the suffering of Christ, showing different stages of the suffering with the help of sculptures, in an “S-shaped” pattern. Starting on the first level, to the very far left of the entrance, stands statues depicting the last supper. The next step in the “S-shaped” story telling is to the left of the entrance, where one can see how Judas the betrayer is kissing Jesus.
Behind them one can see a magic square, filled with different numbers. Before reaveling the square’s secret, try to find it out yourself. Can you solve the riddle of the magic square? On the pillar in between the entrances stands Jesus tied and tormented. The statues to the right depicts Peter’s denial and to the far right Jesus trial.
Above the trial stands the three Marys and above the entrance, Golgotha; the place where Jesus was crucified. To the left is a statue depicting the mounted solider Longino – the man who the legend has it pierced Jesus side with a spear.
Above him is several soldiers depicted while they were gambling for Jesus clothes, and to the right of them - the crucifixion. The last sculptures to the far right shows the entombment of Christ.
One little detail many people don’t notice can be found far above the entrance, at the archway between the towers. By looking closely to towards the right side, one can see a golden statue of the risen Christ. By taking a look at the main doors, visitors will see that they are filled with words from the Bible in various languages, including Catalan.
The Nativity façade was built before work was interrupted by the civil war. This is the façade which bears the most direct Gaudi influence. It consists of four bell towers and three large portals. From left to right stands the Portal of Hope, the Portal of Charity and the Portal of Faith. By looking towards the top of the portals, one can see that they symbolize grottos.
In fact, throughout the whole Nativity Façade, there is a clear theme of nature, as many of the sculptures symbolize vegetation, people and birds. This is a celebration to the ever changing nature and to the creators of all forms of life.
The Portal of Hope
The leftmost portal, known as the Portal of Hope, is covered in flora and fauna from the Nile. The portal shows the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and to the right stands Herod murdering innocent children. The portal also displays some hope, in form of Joseph standing together with his son above the doorway. In the top of the portal one can also see the marriage between Joseph and Mary.
The Portal of Faith
The rightmost Portal is known as the Portal of Faith. The sculptures’ surrounding the portal depicts the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Holy Family in their house at Nazareth and the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple. In the very top visitors can see the Immaculate Conception - a Roman Catholic Dogma which says that Virgin Mary is without any original sin.
The Portal of Charity
The portal in the middle is the largest one. It is known as the Portal of Charity. In the middle of this portal stand two doors, supported by a beautiful pillar. Lower part of the pillar depicts a snake sinking its teeth into an apple. This is the symbol of original sin which is the reason Jesus came to earth. On the left side of the doors stands the Three Kings, bringing their gifts to the newborn Jesus, and on the other side the Three Shepherds.
The sculptures above the doors represents the birth of Christ and the top depicts how Jesus crowns the Virgin Mary Queen of Heaven. Above that, closer to the very top of the portal, stands the letters “JHS” - an anagram for Christ’s name.
The Portal of Charity is crowned with a large tree of life. On the pinnacle of the tree stands a large red “T”; the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet which reads “tau”, the initial of the name of God. On top of the T is a smaller X, which represents Christ. At the very top you can also see a white dove, which represents the Holy Spirit. Thus, the three persons of the Holy Trinity are represented at the top of the tree, symbolizing the creators of life.
Between the tree portals stands two massive pillars. The pillars are resting on the backs of turtles. Turtles have long been seen as a divine animal with connections to the heavens and the cosmos, known for their longevity.
Half way up, the columns bear the inscriptions ‘Joseph’ and ‘Mary’. The columns are crowned with palms to symbolize triumph and the coming of a new light. In the old days, palms symbolized the martyr and his or her triumph over death.
A lot to discover
As clearly shown, the whole church is absolutely full of symbolism. Giving all the details about all the symbols covering the church would need a smaller essay. One thing is for sure; visitors to Sagrada Familia will have a lot of things to discover!
Remember the Magic Square located on the Passion façade, behind Judas? In case you haven’t solved the riddle, the answer is that all the numbers adds up to 33; the age Jesus was when he died.
Today, even though it’s unfinished, the church has become a top tourist attraction, not only in Barcelona, but in whole Spain. The visitors are an important source of income as the project is not supported by any government or official church sources. An estimate of more than two million people visits the site each year.
For a small fee, one can enter the church and take an elevator - or climb the more than 400 steps - to an observation point. It provides a great view over the beautiful city of Barcelona.
Sagrada Familia location
Sagrada Familia resources
Still under construction. (GFDL) Bernard Gagnon.
The magic square and the betrayal. (GFDL) Oscar.
Statue of the risen Christ. (GFDL) Harmonia Amanda.
Statue of Longino. (GFDL) Harmonia Amanda.
Interactive location map. For a larger and more detailed map, check out our Spain map.
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