The Sagrada Familia: The Crown of Barcelona

There is no denying that Barcelona, with its rich touristic offerings, is ‘on the map’ for a wide variety of reasons. As a center for arts, cuisine, commerce, trade, and media, it is a city that can charm any kind of traveler. No matter your purpose for visiting, however, no trip to Barcelona is complete without paying a visit to Antoni Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.


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Antoni Gaudí was a Catalan architect born in 1852. He is one of the most celebrated modern architects in history thanks to his whimsical, colorful style and convention-defying creations. Gaudi took inspiration from patterns and shapes he observed in nature; therefore, his works did not contain sharp lines or straight corners. As he is purported to have said, “the straight line belongs to men, the curved one to God.”

Visitors to Barcelona can get a glimpse of Gaudí’s brilliance at sites like Casa Battlo, Park Guell, and La Pedrera, but to fully understand the extent of his ingenuity, a visit to the Sagrada Familia is essential. This awe-inspiring landmark is so complex, its construction continues to this day.  In fact, the basilica was only formally dedicated in 2010, and is projected to be finished in 2026.  The idea for the Sagrada Familia was conceived in 1866, 17 years before Gaudí’s involvement.   The first stone was laid in 1882 under the direction of the chief architect at the time, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano.  Soon disagreements led to Lozano’s removal, and Gaudí was placed on the project in 1883. From that point until his death in 1926, Gaudí was the leader of this ambitious project, dedicating the last 12 years of his life to the basilica as his sole focus.  His tomb is in the crypt of the church.

The Sagrada Familia, like all religious architecture, seeks to create a spiritual experience through light, color, stone and defined space.  This building is similar in form to other Gothic churches in that it has a soaring interior nave surrounded by stain glass windows along the walls. However, the Sagrada Familia is unique in that the ribs and arches are more whimsical in form (branch-like—almost as if one is looking into a kaleidoscope) and are interlaced with light and glass. Many Gothic churches have beautiful stain glass windows but the ceilings are dark.  The Sagrada Familia dazzles as light seems to pour down from the heavens through intricate shapes. The upward gaze of the pilgrim is held firm by the soft light pouring down and by bright colorful light streaking through the windows along the walls.

The Sagrada Familia has a floor plan based on a Latin cross and features three facades, including the Nativity facade, the Passion facade, and the Glory facade.  Gaudí chose to create the Nativity facade first, as he thought that it’s more ornamental design would better catch the public’s interest—helping to attract support and funding.  The Nativity facade and Passion facade are opposite each other, on the northeastern and southwestern sides respectively.  The Glory facade is located on the southeastern side, opposite the apse, which is located at the “top” of the Latin cross floor plan.  The Nativity facade depicts Christ’s birth, the Passion his crucifixion, and the Glory his resurrection.

Despite his eclectic style, Gaudí was quite methodical in planning his design for the cathedral.  He did not attempt to copy nature, but rather studied the purpose and functionality of its components to come up with his designs.  For example, his branching columns not only give the look of a forest, but provide better support of the “canopy” above.  To add to the forest effect, skylights in the vaults and multi-colored stained glass windows create a speckled and varied light pattern that changes as the day progresses, as in a real forest. Gaudí also developed a system of proportions for the structure that applied to every dimension of every part of the church, from length to width to height.  The proportions were calculated using simple ratios based on twelfths of the largest dimension (e.g. 1:½, 1:⅔, 1:¾, etc.). This system not only gives the building a sense of harmony of form, but also made it easier for the construction to continue with ease long after Gaudí’s death.

By the time the building is completed, it will feature 18 towers.  Currently there are 8 finished towers: 4 over the Nativity facade, and 4 over the Passion facade.  Visitors to the Sagrada Familia can also visit the towers for a separate admission fee, with the Nativity facade offering a nice view of east Barcelona and the Passion facade a view of the city center.  According to the design, 12 towers will represent the apostles, 4 will represent the Gospels, one—situated over the apse—will represent Mother Mary, and the central tallest tower will represent Jesus Christ.  In accordance with Gaudí’s reverence for the divine design of nature, the height of the central tower will be slightly shorter than Montjuic, the highest point in the municipality of Barcelona.  It was Gaudí’s view that the work of man should not outshine the work of God. 

Here’s a great video that shows the progress and future plans of the towers:


Good religious architecture should cause the visitor to stop in his or her tracks and ponder the mystery of the universe and his or her place in it.  Gaudí’s masterpiece grabs hold of even the most cynical visitor and astounds profoundly.

The Sagrada Familia’s official website is a great resource for more information about Antoni Gaudí, the history of the cathedral, ticket prices and visiting hours, and the cathedral’s future.  Despite its unfinished status, the Sagrada Familia is one of the top places to visit in Barcelona and Spain. Although the cathedral is dedicated to the Holy Family and celebrates tenets of the Christian faith, the Sagrada Familia prides itself on being an “international centre of spirituality” that invites people of all faith backgrounds to come together and celebrate life that is centered on peace, love, generosity, and goodness. 

Illume has special initiatives and programs to explore Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia and environs – including the historic abbey of Montserrat, St. Ignatius’ Cave in Manresa, the ancient Roman town of Tarragona, and sites within the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona itself.  

Click here for more details on this special initiative.

Contact us  to begin planning a customized program for your family, friends, school, church group or other constituency.

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