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The Gospels ... in stone

A Spanish architect’s opus to Christ

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WITH HIS FAIRY-TALE FAÇADES and modernista odes to the rhythms and forms of Creation, Antoni Gaudí’s work made him Barcelona’s most famous artistic son. And yet, during his lifetime, the architect completed just six major projects. A seventh, the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral in Barcelona, is still under construction—almost a hundred years after Gaudí’s death.

In April, I visited the Sagrada Familia with my friend Suzy, and on first sight, the place was, well … odd. Recently consecrated as a basilica, the building’s beige bulk hulks on a street corner, weirdly situated across the street from a Five Guys. Its colossal spires and belfries reminded us of wet sand decorated with flotsam from an Afghan jingle truck.

With such a first impression, Suzy and I did not expect to be further impressed. But we were wrong. So wrong that shortly after our tour began, Suzy turned to me and said, “If you were going to build something that would cause people to hear the gospel whether they wanted to or not, this is what you would build.”

Gaudí’s design includes three monumental façades, each a scene from a pivotal moment in the life of Christ: His birth, His death and resurrection, and His present and future glory. Sculpted in high relief, these are so steeped in realism the stone seems to come alive.

Each façade supports four bell towers, which together represent the 12 apostles. Four new towers will be dedicated to the four Gospel authors. A final tower, the tallest of all, will be dedicated to Jesus.

This being a Catholic basilica, I expected the interior to be filled with icons and statuary. But no. The entire cavernous space—which envelops a forest of 36 soaring columns—contains only four sculptures, each marking one arm of the basilica’s floor plan, which forms a Latin cross. The most striking sculpture hangs above an altar of smooth stone, suspended almost invisibly beneath a lighted baldachin so that it seems to float. It is Christ crucified, head thrown back, arms stretched toward heaven: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.

In his youth, Gaudí did not focus on this Savior. Instead, he played the dandy: gourmet tastes, concerts, the theater, salons. But by his early 40s, he had withdrawn into a life of austerity, even living at the Sagrada Familia in order to devote himself to the work.

“He reduced all things to what was indispensable for his individual survival,” wrote Gaudí’s friend, Mosén Gil Parés, who served as custodian chaplain at the Sagrada Familia from 1907 to 1930. “He did not live to eat and rest, but rather he ate and rested as necessary not to die.”

I sometimes wonder what that would be like: to be so convinced that a single work was one’s ultimate opus to God, to devote oneself so completely, to the exclusion of all else. Most of us aren’t called in that way. Observing a man like Gaudí, one might even use terms like eccentric or obsessed. Then again, many likely used similar terms to describe John the Baptist.

Gaudí devoted the last third of his life to building the Sagrada Familia. According to Parés, he attended Mass and took Communion daily. The rest of his time, he spent between prayer and work. He created a cache of plans and blueprints, knowing the cathedral would not be completed in his lifetime. When asked whether this bothered him, Gaudí replied that it did not. “Don’t worry,” he said. “My Client has all the time in the world.”

And yet Gaudí seemed to know that he himself did not. He died in 1926, just shy of age 74, after being run over in the street by an ordinary tram. At the hospital, he lay for a time unrecognized, unkempt and anonymous, until a priest recognized him as the great Gaudí.

Today, Gaudí lies buried in the Sagrada Familia Crypt, which, along with the Nativity Facade, were the only two parts of the church he was able to complete.

Ah, but the way he worked. The way Gaudí spent himself completely on a project so massive it continues a century after his death. I wonder if he lived by David’s prayer: “Lord … let me know how fleeting I am.”

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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