I recently visited the Sagrada Familia Catholic cathedral in Barcelona. It’s a massive project, having been started by architect Antoni Gaudi in the 19th century. Gaudi died in 1926 but work goes on today and is expected to continue for the next 30-50 years. This in itself is remarkable in our age of quick-fire construction; we know that the old medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to build but just assume that “we don’t do that sort of thing any more”. Which, generally speaking, we don’t.
I’d seen the Sagrada Familia from outside before and knew it was very distinctive, even from the “roadside glance” much beloved of estate agents. But this time we paid to go and look properly. (Yes, you do have to pay. But I honestly didn’t begrudge a cent of the €13 – roughly £10 – as the entrance fees are probably one of the major ways the construction is funded.)
Even before we got inside, I was impressed by the front facade and portico, with its huge, sweeping pillars. You can see this from the pavement but standing under it made all the difference. And, accompanied by my trusty Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness Guide, I could make out the many statues and inscriptions depicting key episodes in the life of Christ.
Walking inside, however, was altogether overwhelming.
I’d heard a little about some of the architectural elements, such as supporting pillars that branch out to to resemble trees – just Google it yourself to find out more – but the overall impact was simply breathtaking. The lines and curves, the space and light combined to hit me emotionally and move me to tears. Now that I did not expect.
I do not normally weep at buildings, even impressive ones. My explanation is that this is a place where you sense the presence of God. I doubt very much that Gaudi’s other remarkable Barcelona creations would have the same effect, clever though they are.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that we relate to God by personal faith in Jesus and that His Spirit lives in every believer. In that sense, God lives in people, not buildings. But here is a place dedicated to celebrating the creation God made and the life, death and resurrection of the Son He sent. Gaudi and his successors set out to bring art and the Christian faith together and, for me at least, they succeed in a way I’ve never noticed in “traditional” cathedrals, grandiose though they are.
I’ve no idea what the services are like there. And I’m not Catholic so probably wouldn’t quite share all the same beliefs. But overwhelmingly this cathedral seems to me to very much embody the phrase “to the glory of God”. I was glad to have seen it. I was very moved, and prayed that it would be a place where many find faith in Jesus. That there should be such a project in our day was a surprise. No doubt there are those who object to the money spent, but I for one am pleased to commend these architects, craftsmen and builders and their vast endeavour. While it’s true that God is more interested in hearts and lives than bricks and mortar, I believe he gives people gifts and when those gifts are given back to Him, sometimes the result can be an amazing building that brings a smile to His face.
P.S. For a flavour of what I’m trying to convey, check out the virtual tour at http://www.sagradafamilia.cat/sf-eng/docs_instit/vvirtual.php?vv=1.