BARCELONA -- Even unfinished, the Temple de la Sagrada Famlia is a magnificent monument to humanity's quest for the divine. Designed by the renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaud, its towers soar Babel-like into the Barcelona sky. Symbolism piles up on its facades, from the intricately carved Nativity narrative on the northeast face to the stark Passion on the opposite side. The Temple will be stunning when it's finished.
If we should live so long. It's been 122 years since work began, and the best guess is that it might be completed in another 40 or so.
"My client is in no hurry," Gaud used to say. He died in 1926, still toiling at 74 on this last labor of religious love. As spectacular as this landmark is the story of a construction schedule to rival that of the Pyramids. When the first stone was laid in 1882, churches didn't have electric lights, people who drove to worship used horses, and "Sunday best" meant frock coats. Ever since then, tragedies and bad breaks have made the already daunting task of building a medieval cathedral an exercise in Christian patience.
The original architect had quit when Gaud agreed to take over in 1884. With religiosity as feverish as his plans were expansive, he exhausted the money and patience of the wealthy patrons who had wanted a cathedral honoring the Holy Family. (Gaud had to conduct on-site workshops to train laborers for the project.) The Temple consumed his last decades until his death in a trolley accident, by which time, want and work had left him bedraggled. It took three days for his body to be identified.
Work dragged on, but a decade after Gaud's death, the Spanish Civil War incinerated his dream as anarchists torched and smashed the workshops, plans, and models. Construction stopped for almost two decades. In 1952, relying on restored models, photos of the old plans, and fund-raising, work started up again. Today, work proceeds at the pace permitted by donations to the foundation dedicated to finishing Gaud's grand project.
Figures partly convey how ambitious it is. The plans called for the finished cathedral to hold a congregation of 15,000, a number we in New England typically call a town. The inside of the church is 312-by-197 feet. Plans call for 18 towers, the central one looming 558 feet over Barcelona. Eight towers have been finished, and the climb up affords views of both the city and the curves and colors of detail Gaud embedded into upper reaches of the Temple. Half of the towers shelter the Nativity Facade at the base of the church and half the Passion Facade.
The joy of the Nativity is reflected in the explosion of sculpted details. Gaud didn't confine himself to Jesus' birth, but retold much of the Gospel accounts of his early life. The facade is divided into three parts representing charity, hope, and faith. The charity section includes precisely sculpted representations of the manger, ox, ass, shepherds, kings, and angels. A stained-glass window above undergirds a scene of the Annunciation, when, according to Gospels, the angel Gabriel visited Mary with the news that she was to give birth to the son of God. In the hope portal, Gaud depicted the holy family's flight to Egypt, the massacre of the innocents, and Jesus and Joseph in Joseph's workshop. The faith section includes a scene of Jesus as a boy lecturing the temple priests on the Scriptures.
Even the untutored eye recognizes the different style of the Passion Facade. Gaud meant to show "the cruelty of sacrifice" in the story, and that is captured in the somber simplicity of the sculptures, arranged in an "S" shape around the portal, beginning at the bottom with the Last Supper and culminating with the burial of Jesus at the top.
A visitor would be advised to rent an audio guide. The inside is a construction site, and the clutter, coupled with the intricate design details inside and out, make it impossible for all but registered architects to figure out what's what.
Rich Barlow, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.