On Sunday, Nov. 7, in Barcelona, Spain, Pope Benedict will lay his hands on the world’s greatest modern work of church architecture, and declare it fit for worship. Outside, there are still two more decades of construction ahead, but the interior is complete. The consecration of the Sagrada Família will bring together, as never before in our lifetimes, faith and art.
Never has a church been built with forms so closely matching its liturgical function. Or which contains, on its awesome facades, such a vast Catholic canvas: only Dante’s “Inferno ” or St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae can come close to the Sagrada Família’s ambition to condense, in a single created work, the entirety of the catechism. Yet this is not a book but a building, the mature work of one of the modern world’s greatest artists.
Rescuing ‘Catholic’ Gaudí
The church Antoni Gaudí designed but never lived to see completed — “my client,” he would joke, “is not in a hurry” — soars into the sky over the capital of Catalonia, its towers emblazoned with the Sanctus. In its epic scale, its artistic ambition, in the way it captures the human yearning for God, the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family is, simply, awesome: Europe’s last great church — or, if you believe its visionary architect, the first of Europe’s new Christian era.
When he died in 1926 at age 74, Gaudí was acknowledged as a saint, nicknamed “God’s architect” not just for the great cathedral that by the time of his death had already begun to dominate the Barcelona skyline, but for his holiness.
Yet it was not until 1992 that the cause for his beatification began. In the 70-odd years between those two events, Spain underwent civil war, dictatorship and democracy; Gaudí’s architecture — he had been the leading light of the late 19th-century modernist movement — fell into obscurity. Lacking funds, construction on the Holy Family for decades came to a virtual standstill.
After the Olympic Games in 1992, however, tourists started to flood Barcelona; Gaudí’s architecture, which can be seen in the many houses and parks he built in the city for wealthy patrons, underwent a popular revival. Secular Barcelona — one of the gay capitals of Europe, which prides itself on its avant-garde modernism and tolerance — promoted Gaudí as a “universal artist,” even a “New Age” figure. As visitors to the Sagrada Família grew — it now attracts 3 million visitors a year, more than the Prado Art Museum in Madrid and the Alhambra Palace in Granada — the pace of construction accelerated. Ironically, Europe’s secular agnostic tourists have financed the building of Europe’s last great modern church.
Because of the huge investment locally in Gaudí as a Catalan nationalist, rescuing the “Catholic” Gaudí has not been easy. Two architects, a Gaudí biographer, a priest (who has since died) and a Japanese sculptor who converted to Catholicism while working on the Sagrada Família took the idea of beatifying him to the archbishop of Barcelona, but met with resistance.
The concerns came in part from fears that making Gaudí a saint would deter the tourists on whose 12 euro entrance tickets continued construction depended. Convinced that it was the right time, the Gaudí enthusiasts created the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudí in 1992 as a civil charity. Prayer cards were printed in various languages. From different countries came reports of favors being granted, and even miracles, following prayers to the architect.
“Now everyone accepts that the beatification of Gaudí does not diminish his value as an artist, but rather makes him more understandable — more accessible to those who might not see where he is coming from,” Josep Maria Tarragona, one of the association’s founders and the author of the position paper for his beatification, told Our Sunday Visitor.
The association took its case to Rome, arguing that beatification deserved consideration for two reasons: first, that Gaudí was far ahead of his own time, and therefore countered the stereotype of Catholics being opposed to modernity. Second, they noted there was not a single professional artist in the Church’s roster of saints. Pope John Paul II had partly put that right when he beatified Fra Angelico in 1982, naming him patron of artists; but Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar who painted, not a lay professional artist.
Austere life of prayer
After seven years, during which the Barcelona archdiocese continued to resist the idea, word reached Pope John Paul, who in 2000 asked the archbishop of Barcelona to confirm that Gaudí was a layman; seeing the pope’s enthusiasm, Cardinal Ricard Carles opened the cause that year. Three years later — by canonization standards, the speed of light — the pope gave the green light and a 1,000-page dossier was lodged in Rome. The positio — a book-length biography making the case for Gaudí’s sainthood — is being completed.
The biography shows how from his 40s — some 10 years after beginning work on the cathedral in 1882 — Gaudí’s conversion to a life of austerity and prayer was total; it was a mature decision, made with full knowledge of the alternative paths, and therefore a very “modern” kind of faith choice, which converged with his artistic genius. Convinced that this was the task that God had given him for the rest of his life, Gaudí worked thereafter every day on the Sagrada Família, read Scripture, attended Mass, said the Rosary, living austerely. Yet he was no plaster saint. Although he exhibited the heroic virtues, he could be blunt and impatient — and his battle with his temper was lifelong.
The joy of artistic creation was so immense, the architect believed, that if the artist did not respond through fasting and poverty, he would be “over-compensated.” His asceticism could be extreme: a radical fast once left him at death’s door. But he obeyed his spiritual directors. “Life is love, and love is sacrifice,” the architect used to say. “Sacrifice is the only really fruitful thing.” Hence the Sagrada Família, which he conceived as an “expiation” for the sins of the world.
Gaudí saw the Sagrada Família as participating in a celestial liturgy; his role as an artist was to enable this — to bring about the structures that are closer to the divine designs than any other church yet created. That liturgy will happen for the first time on Nov. 7 at the Mass of Consecration — a liturgy that, says Tarragona, “of all the liturgies ever celebrated in the world, will come closest to the celestial liturgy.”
Austen Ivereigh writes from England.
For an example of the impact of the Sagrada Família, consider the testimony of Yun Young-Joo, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry at Pusan (Korea), who visited the Basilica in 1998. “Through the work of Gaudí, and the divine element which it contains, I became convinced of the existence of God, “ he later wrote. “Although before I had been a devout Buddhist, I converted to Catholicism after I returned to Pusan, through the intense inspiration provoked in me by Gaudí’s work.”