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In the mid 19th Century, a bookseller in Barcelona decided to build a church: The vision Josep Maria Bocabella had, would become one of the most spectacular construction projects to ever be undertaken. In the heart of the Eixample district of the city, The Sagrada Familia is simultaneously an unfinished building that has been under construction for almost 140 years, an iconic building that stands as a symbol for an entire city and a spiritual building that is arguably the most impressive place of worship on the planet.
The Sagrada Familia story begins on March 28, 1883, when Antoni Gaudi signs the first official document and becomes the architect of the church. Gaudi’s plans for the church are more ambitious than anything Barcelona had seen before. He envisioned an enormous Gothic church with 18 towers – all of which represent a different branch of the Catholic faith – in addition to three façades – all of which symbolise different parts of the religious story.
Standing outside the building will give you some idea of the magnitude of its design and construction. The Sagrada Familia is planned to reach a height of 170 metres by the time of its completion. This will make it the tallest place of worship in Europe and one of the tallest places of worship in the world. Despite its incredible height, Gaudi designed the building to be exactly 170m. He didn’t want the church to exceed the height of Barcelona’s tallest hill, Montjuïc, believing that no structure should exceed ‘God’s work’.
This level of dedication is also reflected in the towers of The Sagrada Familia. Unlike other churches which have towers or spires to represent the glory of God in a more generalised sense, the completed Sagrada Familia will feature 18 towers which will each have their own specific meaning. There are 12 smaller towers which represent each of the disciples, four to represent the evangelists (who are attributed with writing the Bible), one which is designated to the Virgin Mary, and a pinnacle tower, which is of course dedicated to Jesus Christ. These will also be ornated with sculptures on each tower which symbolise the specific religious affiliation of each figure. Details are everything to Gaudi’s vision for the Sagrada Familia.
The most common entrance to the church is through the Nativity façade, which is also the only one to be completed under the architect’s close supervision. This entrance celebrates the birth of Christ and features this story in various carvings and sculptures. However, the beauty of this façade is in its details. This side of the church is upheld by two pillars, the bottom of which feature two creatures – a tortoise and a turtle. These animals are meant to represent land and sea, which in turn are symbols of time and the divine perfection of God’s creation of the Earth. However, the details don’t stop there. The faces of some of the character’s in the Nativity scene are moulded from the deceased people of Barcelona. Gaudi wanted the façade (and by extension the whole building) to be built by the people and for the people, which is represented in actual faces of Catalonians being featured in the church’s decoration.
Absorbing the exterior of the Sagrada Familia is a sight to behold in itself until you step inside. The interior of the church is like a kaleidoscopic stone forest; the nave vaults which hold up its roof are sculpted in the shape of enormous trunks, meeting at the top like the branches of a canopy; the stained glass windows let in multi-coloured rays of light which wash the scene with a vibrant glow; a circular window allows a single beam of sunlight to shine down on a depiction of Christ suspended on a cross above the altar. Gaudi’s vision to incorporate his love of nature and religion into the church is superbly executed. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that it took over 20 years to construct.
Despite the Sagrada Familia remaining incomplete for more than 140 years (the first stone was laid in 1882 and the final one ‘should’ be put in place in 2026), it is almost more impressive for this reason. The design of the church is so intricate, and of such a colossal scale, that it demands its lengthy construction. Watching it being built across the years is like watching the unravelling of a masterpiece. It is unclear whether Antonio Gaudi knew or in fact intended his design to take as long as it has to be created, but there is one thing that is for certain: it will be worth the wait.
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