Signs, symbols and serenades (Or, why I loved La Sagrada Família so.)

“We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius.” is what was reportedly said about Anton Gaudi when he was given his degree. 

We left Barcelona on June 10th, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death. The stories report that he was hit by a tram car in 1926, and no one knew who he was because he looked slovenly and carried no papers. He was assumed to be a beggar and received only basic care when he arrived at the hospital, having been brought there by a police officer. By the time someone recognized him, his condition had deteriorated beyond any hope. He was buried in the crypt in La Sagrada Família, and he remains the only person buried there today. 

I’ve been letting my thoughts about this place roll around in my head for days and days, waiting for them to settle into some sort of a cohesive pattern, something I could speak out loud or write down that would do it justice. I don’t know that it’s possible. To say it’s beautiful is a gross understatement. To declare it inspired is, although true, quite banal an adjective to attach to La Sagrada. 

I think what I like best about it is, quite simply, the concept. Gaudi was passionate about religion and architecture, both of which interest me, but neither of which I pursue. He also found his inspiration in Nature. Ah. This, I get. There’s an amazing quote that I found that kind of makes it all make sense; ‘Originality consists in returning to the origin.’ For him, this meant referring to a place where perfection occurs:  Nature. How that resonates with me may not be the way it was intended to. When you need something figured out, or when things aren’t right, go and be amongst the trees. Works for me every time. And, in La Sagrada Família, that is how I felt. I said it out loud while I was in there – I remember exclaiming ‘I feel like I’m in the forest!’ – well, whispering – because there is an instant reverence that calls for quiet that happens when you enter that church. 

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Everywhere you look in La Sagrada there is a serenade to nature. The columns rise like trees and branch off, giving way to light, and sky. The sculptures of animals are of those whose habitat was affected by the construction of his masterpiece – his recognition of what he had done. He believed that because there were no straight lines in Nature, there must be no straight lines in architecture, and it is very, very difficult to find a consistently straight line anywhere in his work. Light peeks in just the way it would in a forest; it’s a warm, dapple of light here and there, sometimes high, sometimes low. Image

It wasn’t until I looked at these pictures upon arrival at home that I noticed the grapes surrounding the cross. And the Jesus represented here is very much lacking the foreboding crown of thorns and blood that often adorn the Jesus we look up at in cathedrals. Here, he appears to be outside with the rest of us, protected by the canopy of trees. He looks like he’s being carried up to the heavens by a flock of birds.  I can see why this church wasn’t recognized by the Catholic church until 2010. There’s no fear here. No suffering. That can’t be Catholic! 

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There were moments when I felt like I was in a cave, not a forest, and it was just as beautiful, and I felt just as protected. Inspired by crystals, trees, honeycombs, Gaudi’s belief that Nature holds perfection is demonstrated in every nook and cranny in this place, whose construction began in 1882 and which is scheduled to be completed in 2026, 100 years after his death. It is not surprising to me that its construction is being entirely funded privately and through tourism. It is impossible to leave there without feeling like you want to be part of it. 

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