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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

What is the Sagrada Família?

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, usualy shortened to The Sagrada Família, is an imposing Modernist basilica in Barcelona that was originally designed by Antoni Gaudí in the late 19th century and developed over the 20th century, but still unfinished.

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Sagrada Família three wise men sculptures

Sagrada Família History

In construction for almost 150 years, the Sagrada Família has become one of Barcelona's defining landmarks and one of the most visited monuments in Spain. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, the unfinished building is one of the greatest examples of Catalan Modernist architecture.

It was commissioned by devout Catholic bookseller Josep María Bocabella, who was troubled by the rise in secularism, liberalism, and other revolutionary ideologies accompanying the industrialisation of Barcelona in the late 19th century. Bocabella was determined to counter secularism by building a church – or as he saw it, a temple – dedicated to the teaching and example of the Holy Family, in the hope that they would intercede for the faithful of the city. In 1866, Bocabella had formed the Spiritual Association of the Devotees of Saint Joseph with other like-minded people, who helped raise the money to pay for the site and construction works.

The first stone was placed on Saint Joseph's Day, the 19th of March 1882. Initially, the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar oversaw the project, but swiftly abandoned the commission due to disagreements. The Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí took over from him in 1883. He was relatively new to the scene, at the age of 31 only five years out of Barcelona’s School of Architecture, having just received his first major commissions, the Casa Vicens in Barcelona and El Capricho, a holiday villa in northern Spain. He had not as yet designed any religious buildings. Despite this, the project appealed to Gaudí’s devout and conservative Catholicism. He immediately stamped his personality on the design, making the Sagrada Família the most complex and ambitious project he carried out during his career, an enchanting blend of neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Oriental elements.

But no matter how hard he worked, Gaudí remained busy with other commissions and progress on the Sagrada Família was slow. When asked about the construction delays, he is said to have remarked: ‘My client is not in a hurry’ (referring to God). The architect was aware that he would never see his work completed. However, it was important to him that the spirit of his design should always be preserved because, as he said, ‘its life must depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated’. To this end, Gaudí devoted his last twelve years exclusively to it, which was why he designed no other major works in that period. His dedication to the project was such that he moved into his workshop on site. Tragically, however, the architect died in June 1926 after he was run over by a tram, two weeks shy of his 74th birthday.

Work was able to continue after his death thanks to the detailed plans and models he left. However, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 put a stop to it. An anticlerical mob overran the Sagrada Família, burning Gaudí's drawings and destroying his models in order to prevent the building from being completed. However his remains, interred in the crypt of the unfinished building, were left undisturbed. Even political dissidents agreed on the revolutionary architect’s significance to Barcelona's architectural and cultural landscape.

Sagrada Família in the daylight

Building gradually resumed after the end of the Civil War in 1939. Gaudí’s architectural successors stayed true to his vision and rebuilt the destroyed models using old photos and some published plans, along with educated guesswork based on what had already been built before he died. Though works are still yet to be completed, many of the original elements envisioned by him have been successfully achieved over the past 80 years (helped greatly by the advances in computer modelling).

Gaudí designed 18 towers to flank the church: twelve to commemorate the Apostles, four to celebrate the Evangelists, one in memory of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and another dedicated to Christ, the height of each to correspond with its inspiration’s place in the religious hierarchy. The façades are packed with decoration and religious symbolism, with imagery representing Christ’s birth and a thematic representation of his suffering, death and resurrection. The interior reflects Gaudí’s love of natural forms. He took inspiration from the trunks of trees when he designed the slender and elegant supporting columns, effectively creating a concrete forest in the basilica’s interior.

The Sagrada Família’s beauty earned Gaudí the title of 'God's Architect', and there was a formal move to seek his beatification. Though works are projected to conclude only by 2026, the centenary of his death, the building has long been an undeniable icon of European architecture.

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