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Gaudi, Antoni - VM - Jonathan Evens

Antoni Gaudí: Sagrada Famila and the Crypt of Colònia Güell   


God’s Architect 

by Jonathan Evens 

Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), architect of the Sagrada Familia or Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family in Barcelona in Spain, utilises natural form both for utilitarian and aesthetic reasons. He described nature as ‘the Great Book, always open, that we should force ourselves to read’ and thought that ‘everything structural or ornamental that an architect might imagine was already prefigured in natural form, in limestone grottoes or dry bones, in a beetle's shining wing case or the thrust of an ancient olive trunk.’  

As a result first and overall impressions of his work are ones of exuberance and abundance characterised by the sinuous, sensuous curves and colours of his works. Whether we are encountering the wavelike benches at Park Güell or the decorations on the roof of the Sagrada, Gaudí's work possesses an ecstatic sense of natural beauty. 


Similarly the Sagrada Familia is primarily experienced as a forest of columns through which light falls in glowing colours. Like medieval cathedrals, the eye is drawn upwards towards the light and glory of God. Here this is realized by means of slender trunk-like columns which branch before the ceiling of the basilica, where natural and artificial light mingles in star-like shapes resembling sunflower heads. 

Here, among the columnar forest and stained light, there is an almost total absence of explicit Christian iconography. Unlike a medieval cathedral where the Christian story is told inside in stained glass, Gaudí placed the narrative on the exterior of the building to form a Bible written in stone through three facades: Nativity, Passion and Glory. 


The Nativity facade, although undertaken by other sculptors, primarily Llorenç Matamala (1856-1925), was Gaudí’s blueprint for how the facades were to look. The three porticos symbolising hope, charity and faith feature scenes from the birth, childhood and adolescence of Christ. Gaudí’s originality as an architect is found in natural forms utilised as abstract structure or decoration. This means that the somewhat stylised realism of these sculptures is far from being at the emotive heart of the Sagrada Familia project. However, the sheer abundance of carving and symbol on this facade does create the unique look of this building. Rowan Moore remarked: ‘Columns and arches melt into a viscous jism that foams, drips and procreates foliage, beasts and people. No other architect has made stone look so fluid, so dissolving.’ 


Although driven, single and celibate Gaudí was not an ascetic loner who surrounded himself with work colleagues to whom he gave significant responsibility. He was also well aware that work on the Sagrada Familia could only be completed by the architects, sculptors and craftspeople who would follow his team and plans. One such is Josep Maria Subirachs (1927-2014), a Catalan sculptor whose expressionistic work forms the doors and sculptures of the Passion facade. His angular style is a significant contrast to Gaudí’s flowing forms, yet is better suited to capturing the anguish and pain of Christ’s Passion. 

Gaudí and his primary patron, Eusebi Güell Güell, were men of great vision and vast ambition, resulting among others in the Crypt of Colònia Güell, which consists only of the lower nave of what was intended to be a larger building. Their example suggests that to reach for the impossible and fail can nevertheless result in significant achievement. 


The Crypt of Colònia Güell is a culminating point in Gaudi's work including practically all of his architectural innovations. He stated that without the large-scale experiments he undertook there, he would not have dared apply those same geometries to the Sagrada Familia. 

The Crypt was blessed by the Bishop of Barcelona in 1915 and today functions both as parish church and tourist attraction. Like the Sagrada Familia, albeit on a smaller more intimate scale, its varied columns form a wood of trees. Flower-like cross-shaped stained glass in primary colours creates a warmth to the space which is complemented by the red brick forming the walls and arches of this cave-like space. A thin crucifix hangs over the altar, almost unseen and visually unnecessary, as both the columns and Gaudí’s well-designed, user friendly benches direct the eye to the sanctuary and its gleaming stone altar. 


This is a warm, womb-like enclosure, intimate yet archetypal. It is said that Gaudí’s aim at the Sagrada Familia was to bring heaven and earth together. It may well be that this aim is more fully realised in the earthy intimacy of the Colònia Güell’s wooded Crypt than in the soaring grandeur of the Sagrada Familia’s forest. 


Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) was a Catalan architect of Spanish nationality who was the figurehead of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí's works reflect his highly individual style and are largely concentrated in the Catalan capital of Barcelona. Much of Gaudí's work was marked by his big passions in life: architecture, nature and his Catholic faith. Gaudí integrated into his architecture a series of crafts in which he was skilled: ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork and carpentry. He introduced new techniques in the treatment of materials, such as trencadis, a special type of mosaic made of waste ceramic pieces. After a few years under the influence of neo-Gothic art and Oriental techniques, Gaudí became part of the Modernista movement which was reaching its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gaudí's work enjoys widespread international appeal and many studies are devoted to understanding his architecture. Gaudí's Roman Catholic faith intensified during his life and religious images permeate his work. This earned him the nickname ‘God's Architect’.  

Jonathan Evens is an Anglican priest who is secretary to commission4mission, which aims to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary art in churches as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for the churches involved. For more information see Jonathan's journalism and creative writing has appeared in a range of periodicals. His co-authored book The Secret Chord is an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life, written through the prism of Christian belief. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation May 11, 2014