We made it to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona — a bit lost but no worse for wear — expecting to be overcome with the immense scale and minute detail we had seen in photos and anticipated in person. From far away, Antoni Gaudí’s Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia can be spotted towering above all else on the city’s skyline. The size of it seems exaggerated, and in photos its façade drips with intricate and strange details. Even the cathedral’s history lends it a legendary air. Construction of the cathedral began in 1882, but in 1883 Gaudí took over the architecture and design, working on the project until he died in 1926. At that point, the cathedral was less than half done and still has not been completed today.
This, undoubtedly, adds to the aura of strangeness surrounding the monument. And the fact that before you can see the cathedral itself, you meet a slew of cranes and rigs, not working but still there, forming their own integrated part of the cathedral.
We approached the cathedral, somewhat giddy, and somewhat surprised. We arrived from the Nativity side of the basilica. The cathedral as a whole tells the story of the life of Jesus Christ in carved figures and statues. Three stages of Christ’s life — nativity, passion and glory — are represented on three sides of the cathedral, though the glory façade has yet to be finished.
The Nativity façade is filled with minute details and intricate designs. Sculpted scenes tell the story of the birth of Jesus, all displayed across the exterior of the cathedral. Though there are strange details, such as the representation of the tree of life — a green tree covered with white birds — this façade manages to respect the stylistic conventions of gothic architecture, all the while breaking norms and expectations.
The Passion façade, on the opposite side of the edifice, creates a stark stylistic contrast. Rather than the ornate gothic detail of the Nativity, the Passion scene is simple, barren and striking. This side of the building is pale and clean, the lines are rigid and the figures stand out clearly. Gaudí’s design does not make the crucifixion pretty, the representation instead feels threatening — the images do intend to demonstrate human sin.
Despite the incredible brilliance in the design and architecture of the Sagrada Familia, instead of overtaking the viewer it instead sits fairly naturally in the city. Rather than an overwhelming and overpowering assertion of greatness, the cathedral feels surprising well integrated and almost subtle. Of course, the design of the basilica is not quiet. It’s as spectacular as it seems. But the overall effect is still respectful of the fact that it’s a cathedral first and an architectural feat second — an effect that makes the basilica seem even that more perfect.
Ruby Perlmutter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and studied abroad in Seville, Spain last semester. She may be reached at email@example.com . Notes from Abroad: Sightseeing appears on Tuesdays.