The Sagrada Familia: An Icon 137 Years in the Making
The Sagrada Familia is one of the most recognized structures in Spain, and it hasn’t even been finished yet. Seriously! They laid the first stone in 1882 and there’s still about 7 years of construction left. Antoni Gaudí designed a ton of gorgeous, groundbreaking buildings, but the Sagrada Familia is something extra special.
Antoni Gaudí is one of the most famous architects ever, and a lot of his works can be found around Barcelona. Gaudí’s designs have been so important to the world that 7 of them (including the Sagrada Familia) have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Gaudí was not the original architect for the basilica, though. He was called to the project in 1883, one year after the foundation stone for the church was laid. During his life, 15-25% of the total structure (the crypt, the apse walls, a portal, and a tower) was completed. Gaudí died in 1926 and several other architects have been tasked with completing the Sagrada Familia since.
The Sagrada Familia has had to work around many setbacks, including vandalism and fires, during the 137 years (and counting) of construction. The site even owes the city of Barcelona tons of money for unpaid permits! Despite all of this, the Sagrada Familia receives thousands of visitors each day.
Today, the basilica is about 80% complete. 8 of Gaudí’s 18 planned spires, numerous towers, the Passion facade, the Nativity facade, chapels, portals, and many of the interior features have been completed. Once the Tower of Jesus Christ is complete, the Sagrada Familia will be the tallest church in the world. Construction is set to end in 2026 – the centennial of Gaudí’s death.
Every aspect of the Sagrada Familia has a deeper meaning. These elements are overwhelming, but in a good way. While Gaudí came up with the original concepts for most of these elements, other architects have placed their own influences on certain things. The result is a delicious mix of ideas that is truly moving to see.
The Sagrada Familia has 3 facades, 2 of which are complete. First is the Nativity facade, which was completed way back in 1935. The Nativity facade depicts the birth of Christ, but also mixes in many symbols from nature and creation. It faces northeast, where the sunrises and the story of Christ began.
Next is the Passion facade (pictured above), completed more recently. The architects tried to remain faithful to Gaudí’s style while bringing in their own elements. The Passion facade represents the death of Christ, with anatomical elements (bones, stretching flesh) to depict Christ’s suffering and the sins of humankind. It faces west, where the sun sets, symbolizing Christ’s death.
Finally, the third facade, the Glory facade, is still under construction. It will be the largest facade and depicts the glory of Christ and the road through death, final judgement, and the path to God.
The Sagrada Familia has 18 spires: 12 for the Apostles, 4 for the Gospels, one for the Virgin Mary, and one at the center representing Christ. The height of the spires rising above the basilica represents elevation towards God. The Tower of Jesus Christ will be the tallest spire. It will stand 1 meter shorter than Montjuic because Gaudí felt that man’s work should not surpass God’s.
While the facades are decorated with stone sculptures, the spires are adorned with elements from nature (especially fruits and vegetables) and colorful mosaics that sparkle in the sun. The result of this decoration is that the spires seem to be almost separate from the basilica, like heaven resting in another realm over the earth.
Gaudí was a big believer in all things natural, especially since they were things God had created. Since straight lines do not often appear in nature, Gaudí did not include straight lines in his work. This concept seems like it wouldn’t be too difficult to pull off, except Gaudí uses grand columns to hold up the roof inside the basilica. Columns…without using straight lines. He does this by branching the columns, which makes them appear like trees and ties in the nature aspect of his works. Gaudí further makes the columns appear like trees through the inclusion of knot-like additions to the columns, like trees have when branches are removed.
Gaudí further ties nature in through his use of light. There are stained glass windows lining the basilica that allow tons of natural light to flood in, casting a glow of rainbow light into the room. He also designed skylights to mingle with the branched columns using golden and green light. The daylight floods in and makes you feel like you’re standing in the center of a lush forest, even though you’re in a basilica in the center of one of the largest cities in Spain. The skylights also resemble stars and flowers, further bringing natural symbolism into the room.
The Sagrada Familia welcomes over one million visitors annually (and that doesn’t include those who only marvel at the structure from the street!). In fact, the Sagrada Familia is the most visited monyment in Spain. Definitely buy tickets in advance because they fill up fast!
There are two types of tickets: to the basilica and the basilica and towers. Basilica only is 25€ and the towers and basilica are 32€ for adults. Anyone under 30 or over 65 can buy discounted tickets. Check to see if you qualify for free admission, as many people do. All tickets include an audio guide, which highlights tons of the symbols hidden in the architecture!
The Sagrada Familia opens at 9am every day and closes between 2pm and 8pm, depending when in the year you visit. If you’re wanting to go up in the towers, they close about an hour before the rest of the basilica. We did not know this and missed our chance to go up in the towers, even though we had the proper ticket. The towers are closed during extra windy or rainy weather.
Visiting the Sagrada Familia was one of the most overwhelming, amazing, emotional experiences of my life. The beauty of the building and imagery throughout is truly moving. I will definitely be visiting again if I find myself back in Barcelona.
PS: Like this post? Read my guide to Barcelona or check out my other #SiteSunday posts on the Statue of Liberty, Mount Vernon, the Acropolis complex, and Delos!