The Sagrada Familia

By Gijs Van Hensbergen, Bloomsbury, £20

The cause for Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926) was opened in 1998. Why might this architect be made a saint? He was a bachelor, teetotaller, vegetarian, and a daily Mass-goer, who practised epic self-denial. In 1914, he abandoned his wider architectural practice to devote himself totally to the Sagrada Familia, but lived only to see one of its projected 18 towers and spires built. His final year he spent on the site in his own workshop, which was to be destroyed 10 years later. His Catholicism was lived out against the dark background of violent anarchism and anti-clericalism – associated with him are the causes of 12 martyrs of the Sagrada Familia assassinated by the Reds between 1936 and 1939. He subscribed to an “integrist” view of Catholicism, which in Catalonia, as in contemporary Croatia, Flanders and Ireland, was also allied to language-revival movements and separatist nationalism.

Gaudí was the son of a coppersmith – naturalistic metalwork is one of the hallmarks of his style – and he was educated by the Piarist fathers. At Barcelona architecture school (1874-8), like all good architecture students, he despised the teaching, while making lifelong professional friendships.

He was taken up by integrist and nationalist patrons, designing a model industrial town, and blocks of flats for the wealthy in Barcelona, as well as for bishops, counts and marquises. Two church schemes were begun but left incomplete, while his ruthless reordering of the cathedral of Palma de Majorca (1903-14) was an example of early liturgical-movement thinking expressed in rich Symbolist style and metalwork.

The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family was the project of the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St Joseph. It was founded in 1866 by a Catholic bookseller, Boccabella, with the priest founder of the Congregation of the Sons of the Holy Family, to counter pressing threats to the Catholic family. This was symbolised by urbanisation, industrialisation and exploitation as Barcelona became the Manchester of Spain. The site was bought in 1881 and Gaudí was appointed in 1883.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection