By Anita Krishan
I stand in front of the basilica in veneration. I had only seen it in pictures but the reality is far beyond my expectations. I stare in amazement at the structure that has been under construction since 1876. I doubt there is any other like it, that has taken more than hundred years to complete, except perhaps the Great Wall of China. Though unbelievable, no justification is required. The reason is quite apparent.
Arvind and I landed in Barcelona last night primarily to feast upon Antoni Gaudi’s works, commemorated in the architectural circles even after ninety years of his tragic death in an accident. His renowned masterpieces are spread all over the city; Casa Mila or La Pedrera, Park Güell, Colonia Güell, Casa Batlló. We intend visiting them all. But it is Sagrada Familia, that is number one on our list.
Fortunately, our hotel turns out to be within walking distance from his most celebrated work. Before succumbing to our fatigue, we book online tickets, for we are told about massive lines we would encounter otherwise.
Next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, we head straight for what has been a World Heritage Site since 1984. I’m told that it’s visited by three million visitors annually. Most come for pilgrimage, others just to behold this architectural wonder. We walk down the streets lined with restaurants, butcher shops, general merchants, hairdressers. I’m too absorbed with the shops and fail to notice the spiracles that begin to loom above the neighbouring buildings, till, at the end of a street the voluminous structure reveals itself to me suddenly, like a magical pop-up. I stop dead. My eyes widen in disbelief as if it is not a building that has come into my view, but a mystical entity.
I feel dwarfed by the gigantic edifice. The brilliant power of imagination and the sheer verticality leave me awed. The diversity of forms and designs have combined to create a stunningly beautiful chef-d’oeuvre. I turn towards Arvind to express my first impression. “Wow,” I whisper, but Arvind is busy scurrying around clicking pictures with his camera.
My homework on this architectural wonder now comes handy to understand this super creation of a human mind. We are also provided with audio aides at the entrance so that we can travel through the history of the basilica as we walk around.
I switch on my audio. The narrator begins the recount from 1874, when Joseph maria Bocabella, a Catalan bookseller and philanthropist, came upon the idea of constructing an expiatory temple. He endowed the responsibility of the same on architect Francisco de Paula who prepared drawings based on Neo-Gothic style of design. The construction, enabled by donations, began on 19th March 1882. When Antoni Gaudi took over in 1883, he introduced an entirely new set of design; more naturalistic and modernistic. In fact, Gaudi was a strong contender of ‘Modernista’ movement that was at its peak in late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Gaudi’s was deeply passionate about architecture, nature and religion; it all reflects in his designs.
He disliked straight lines and angles, which according to him, appear unnatural. Instead, he adopted swirling curves of nature.
Highly individualistic with a distinctive style of design, he incorporated various craft forms into his creations such as stained glass work, wrought ironwork, ceramics. His mosaics made of colourful broken pieces of ceramics or champagne bottles are beautifully incorporated into his revolutionary designs.
With the basic education over, I focus my attention on the structure. The towers penetrating the sky draw my immediate attention. I had counted eight towers from a distance, now I can behold only four above the facade I’m facing. Others are hidden from my view or under construction. I perceive huge cranes high up there, almost touching the sky. However, my audio tells me that once the basilica is complete, it’ll have 18 towers: Twelve of them will represent the apostles, four will represent gospels (books containing life and teachings of Jesus), the one crowned by a star will be designated for the Virgin Mary. The highest one in the middle will represent Jesus Christ. This central tower is going to be more than double the height of the present ones, and I can already imagine it blending earth with heaven. I note glass mosaics at the highest points, which I learn, also act as beacons to guide seafarers home when sunlight or moonlight reflects on them.
I’m at the nativity façade that faces the rising sun of the northeast, dedicated to the birth of Jesus. Constructed between 1894 and 1930, it was the first one to be completed. Antony Gaudi was well aware that he would not finish the church in his lifetime, and he chose this Façade to set an artistic and architectural example.
I’m astounded by the sheer beauty of this highly ornate elevation; its detailed biblical figures, heavenly angels, animals, and a tangle of sculptures that seem outgrowths of the stone. On the top is a green cypress tree, symbol of life and a refuge in a storm. It supports peace symbols; several white doves that dot over it. The mosaic work at the pinnacle of the towers is made from Murano glass imported from Venice.
We now step into a spacious hall that has the capacity to hold 13000 worshippers at a time. Endless natural symbolism is witnessed here.
The roof is supported by a forest of extraordinary angled pillars which look like tree trunks. At the ceiling, they sprout into a web of branches creating the effect of a forest canopy. The base of one pillar has a turtle while another has a tortoise; depicting balance between sea and land.
The pillars are made from four different coloured stones with different load bearing capacity; granite, dark grey basalt, Montjuic and burgundy Iranian porphyry. In the centre, under a canopy is a small figure of Jesus on a crucifix.
The graduated golden and green glass reflect mottled light as if through branches of trees in a forest. Light filtering through the windows and circular apertures in the vault is misty, almost magically supernatural.
I stand in bemused silence and bow my head in veneration to such gifted minds as of Gaudi. There are more than a hundred people inside but the exquisiteness has overwhelmed everyone into silence. Only a few clicking cameras break the mesmerising hush. I sit on the prayer bench along with others to thank God to have given me this opportunity.
It’s nearing lunchtime when we reluctantly head for the exit. This is the south-west direction where we now face the Passion façade dedicated to Christ’s last days and his death. This was built between 1954 and 1978, much after Gaudi’s tragic death in 1926. The sculptor, Joseph Subirachs, created very angular, modernistic and controversial figures here; almost ghost like stiff figures of the executioners of Christ as against very human figures of Christ and his disciples. The Last Supper, Passion, Christ’s burial are all depicted through series of sculptures. I realise that the facades add up to become a stone Bible, making the world witness the story of Christ’s life and death.
The Glory Façade facing south is still under construction. It is expected to finish by 2026, on Gaudi’s death centenary. The complete Basilica may be ready only by 2030.
We opt for late lunch and decide upon a visit to the Museum first. More than the surviving drawings (many were destroyed in Spanish civil war between 1936-39) and the models of Sagrada Familia, what fascinates me is the technique that Gaudi adopted to build his structures. Here Arvind becomes my teacher to explain how this technique worked. Gaudi suspended strings and weights from a plan of the temple on the ceiling, sort of creating an inverted model. From this, he derived perfect angles, columns, vaults and arches. Amazing!
Standing outside in the soft sunlight of the early evening, that divulges the intrinsic detailed and painstaking work on the Basilica in almost a golden hue, I realise how truly Antony Gaudi had paid homage to God through a life of dedication.
It is here that he spent the last years of his life, it is here that he lays buried in the crypt and it was here that his spirit rose to mingle with God.
Anita Krishan is a published author of the fictional and autobiographical works: ‘Tears of Jhelum’ and ‘Running up the Hill’. Also an ardent poet, educationist, and environmentalist, her humanitarian side is well revealed in her literary works. She has extensively travelled around the world. She holds degrees in Bachelor of Life Sciences, Bachelor of Education and Masters of English Literature.