When you hear the name Barcelona, you probably think of clubbing, beaches and the fact that it has the highest rate of pick-pockets in Europe. But for a moment in time, all of that is forgotten when you walk onto the property of arguably the most beautiful church you’ll ever see, La Sagrada Familia.
Construction on the massive Catholic church started in 1882 by the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. Just a year later, when he quit, Antoni Gaudi took over the project. Combining gothic and art nouveau styles and taking cues from nature, Gaudi designed a giant, complicated basilica that is, 137 years later, still incomplete. Construction is almost constant on the basilica (minus some time when construction was halted during the Spanish Civil war), but the design is so intricate that it’s still being built to this day.
Gaudi oversaw the construction for over 40 years, much of the time it being his sole project. He even, towards the end of his life, lived in the church and, when he died unexpectedly in a cart accident in 1926, his desire to be buried in the church was granted. Today, Gaudi’s body is buried in the crypt below the church. At the time of his death, the Nativity facade was only one-quarter of the construction was complete. Today, construction is 70% complete and they hope to finish initial construction, including six more towers before the centenary of Gaudi’s death in 2026.
From the moment I turned a corner and first laid eyes on La Sagrada Familia, I was stricken. I have never seen something so amazing in my entire life. With eight massive spires rising into the sky, and another 10 still under construction, the mere sight of the outside of the church left me truly breathless.
While other Catholic and Christian churches reserve most iconography of the passion and nativity for the inside, La Sagrada Familia is designed almost inside out and lays the whole story of Christ on the outside. On the Eastern side, facing the rising of the sun, is the Nativity Facade. A lover of nature, Gaudi designed this side with lush carvings of plants and animals intertwined with statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the rest of the common nativity characters. The general emotion evoked on this side is be full of hope and love, happiness and joy at the birth of the savior.
The western side displays the Passion Facade and is stark in contrast to its eastern counterpart. The statues themselves depicting the passion of Christ are roughly hewn with angular faces and simple designs. The general shape of the arches supporting this side resemble tensed muscles and a crowning arch evokes the thought of ribs. The entire work conjures the raw emotion of the Passion of Christ.
But as stunning as the outside is, nothing will prepare you for the beauty of the interior. Completely different from the outside of the building, the inside of the basilica is almost devoid of typical Catholic statues and iconography (save for the floating crucifix centered above the main altar). Instead, massive smooth columns rise to the ceiling, branching out like trees to bolster the magnificent ceiling. Phenomenal modern stained glass windows line both sides of the church and my designer’s heart sang while looking at their beauty. The western side’s windows were all warm shades of red orange and yellow. Their heat evoking the intense passion facade just on the other side of the shared wall. As with the outside, the eastern windows contrast greatly with cool shades of blues and greens. We arrived in the late afternoon and the sun through the western windows made them look like they were on fire. It was absolutely stunning.
Gaudi designed every last detail to have some sort of symbol. The audio guide is your best option to learn all about these symbols when you walk through this glorious church.
I hope to return to Barcelona in 2026 or after when the last spires are completed. As magnificent as the church is now, I can’t imagine how beautiful it will be when it’s done. I’ve seen some beautiful churches in my life, but I don’t think anything will ever compare to La Sagrada Familia. Do you have a favorite basilica that I should go see? Let me know in the comments!