A striking church in Barcelona, Spain, represents one of the great monuments of modernist architecture.
Among the few successful attempts to modernize medieval and baroque Catholic art and architecture is Antoni Gaudí's Basilica de la Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family), in Barcelona, Spain. Gaudí (1852-1926) was one of the leading figures of the “Modernisme” (modernism) movement in architecture. He was a devoted Catalán nationalist, and nearly all his buildings are in his beloved Barcelona. His work includes seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the Park Güell, and the Casa Milà, Casa Batlló and Casa Vicens apartment buildings.
But his universally recognized masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. He worked on his cathedral for 43 years until his death in 1926. Although the cathedral remains unfinished today —and hence almost perpetually marred by ugly scaffolding and cranes — it is still a stunning work of architecture. In Catholic terminology, the holy family refers to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, specifically in relation to the New Testament stories and later Catholic legends related to the Nativity, flight to Egypt and Jesus' youth in Nazareth.
Broadly speaking, the Holy Family cathedral contains most of the structural elements of traditional medieval cathedrals — cruciform layout, apse, nave, massive piers and columns, stained glass windows, huge open spaces and vaulted ceilings. While Gaudí kept all these architectural elements, he abstracted and “modernized” their forms. Fundamentally, Gaudí used a fusion of light, open space and geometric shapes to modernize traditional cathedral architecture.
The northern exterior of the cathedral has a monumental gateway and towers similar to the tripartite gates of traditional cathedrals, but modernized into stark geometric lines. The four towers above the gate are adorned by a central figure of Christ flanked by apostles, with the the Latin “Sanctus/Holy,” the “Trisagion” hymn of the angels from Isaiah 6:3. The south gate is adorned with more naturalistic statues of the Nativity, surrounded by interweaving floral motifs and childlike angels singing “Glory to God in the highest!” (Luke 2:14).
Inside, the visitor is immediately struck by light and by the great open space created by the height of the vaulted ceilings. The use of modern steel and cement engineering techniques permitted Gaudí to make much higher columns and ceilings than medieval stone-building technology permitted. The tops of Gaudí's columns split into treelike branches, with leaves of God's celestial light shining down upon the earth. The whole cathedral thus abstractly evokes the earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden.
In some ways it's helpful to know the traditional forms of medieval and baroque Catholic iconography to understand what Gaudí is trying to represent by the art and architecture of his cathedral. The baldacchino — a canopy over the high altar — was traditionally mounted on pillars; Gaudí places his suspended in air over a large crucifix; Christ on the cross is thus almost hovering like an angel. Traditional stained glass panels and rosettes depicting Jesus Christ, Mary, angels and saints are so completely abstracted into rainbows of glass so as to be unintelligibly beautiful.
The biblical seraphim of Isaiah 6 are said to have been brightly flaming angels who used their six wings to cover their bodies and face so as to not be overwhelmed by the glory of God. For Gaudí, they have become geometric wings with feathers represented as beams of flaming, “seraphimic” light. The Trisagion (“three holies”) — the hymn eternally sung by the Seraphim before the throne of God (Isaiah 6:3)— appears not as the traditional Latin “Sanctus” but in Gaudí's native Catalan as “Sant, Sant, Sant,” written on the tips of the Seraphim's wings.
Gaudí transforms the glorious and intricate stained glass panels of traditional medieval cathedrals into Picassoesque geometric abstractions of prismlike primary colors of the rainbow, perhaps representing the phases of creation, or the realms of underworld (reds), terrestrial world (greens) and celestial world (blues).
Gaudí likewise enlists stone, using the same geometric patterns and abstractions. Angels are batlike in form, with polyhedrons for bodies and smooth lightly feathered wings.
Whether Gaudí succeeds or fails in his grand design of remaking Christian architecture probably rests in the eyes of the beholder. With the passing of the Modernisme movement in the 1910s in Barcelona, the meaning of the cathedral has become increasing obscured from the casual viewer. It still has the power to awe by its grandeur and magnificence, but can it still inspire?