Paul Vallely: Inside Gaudí’s ‘sacred monstrosity’ 

05 July 2019

The artist’s designs reflect the glory of God in nature, Paul Vallely finds

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La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia

I HAD been to Barcelona only once before. Changing planes there, I had snatched a few hours, early one evening, to see Antoni Gaudí’s celebrated Basilica of the Holy Family. It was closed, but I circled the outside a few times to take in its pinnacles, pomegranates, and parabolas, its curves and waves, and its spectacular nativity façade, which looks like an ice sculpture that is starting to melt. I could not make up my mind whether Gaudí was an architectural genius or a precursor of Walt Disney.

We returned last week for a long weekend, now that exams are over. On the way to the Sagrada Família, we passed several secular Gaudí buildings — homes for the wealthy with cock-eyed towers that looked like something out of The Hobbit, and the amazing Casa Batlló, with its windows of yawning bones and roof of glazed ceramic tiles, like the scaly back of a giant dragon.

This time, the basilica was open. We alighted from the bus at the façade of the Passion, its angry thrusting diagonals and stark Thirties statues telling the story of Jesus’s last hours. In an act of architectural evangelisation, the statues of this cathedral are all on the outside. Inside, Gaudí’s designs reflect the glory of God in nature. Its columns soar like cedars of Lebanon from which the vaulting spreads like branches. Great ellipsoid bulges beneath the capitols look like something from a sci-fi film, even as the sharp cubist shapes of the soldiers by the cross look like stormtroopers from Star Wars. But that, of course, is to read history backwards.

Gaudí was eclectic in his inspiration. You can feel the Celtic and pre-Romanesque, the Moorish, the Gothic, and the turmoil of the modernist movement of his day — the Pre-Raphaelites, Picasso, Carl Jung, William Morris, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It all mingles in the dreamlike atmosphere that one critic called a “sacred monstrosity”.

Gaudí disliked Gothic flying buttresses. So, in an intuition of genius, he made a complex model out of weighted strings to create natural parabolas, like chains hanging under their own weight. But he built it above a large mirror, so that, looking down, the hanging shapes were inverted into graceful catenary arches. Today’s architects need computer technology to achieve the effect of a technique that Gaudí puzzled and prayed over for ten years. In his home, you can enter the bare room that contains his austere bed, the single shelf of his devotional books, and a prie-dieu beneath the crucifix where this man of vision began each day.

The arches bring a natural grace to the roof, but they also create a greater surface area for windows, intense with vivid abstract narrative colour below, and flooding the temple with light above. It feels unfinished — as indeed it is. Gaudí knew that his greatest work would not be finished in his lifetime, but he said that his client, God, was in no hurry.

Today, the fourth generation of stonemasons and architects are at work on this great edifice, even as generations would have been in medieval days. They hope to have it completed for 2026: the centenary of Gaudí’s death. It would be good to be there to see it.

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