Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sagrada Família — Nativity Facade

Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia
Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Família.
It's one of the greatest buildings of modern times.

It's the greatest cathedral {Ed.'s note: yes, we know it's technically a basilica} built in the last several hundred years. Frankly, it's one of the greatest cathedrals ever built.

Even if it's not to your taste it's fantastically unique and idiosyncratic, to be sure the sheer audacity, complexity, scale, and craftsmanship demand awe and appreciation.

It won't be completed until 2026, at the earliest.

Construction on Sagrada Família began in 1882
Construction began in 1882.
Consider just the scale of the project. Currently it has eight towers, four for the Nativity Facade and four for the Passion Facade. Each tower rises 330 feet. There will be four more such towers made for the newly begun primary entrance, the Glory Facade. Besides those twelve towers, four even taller towers dedicated to the Evangelists will rise from the middle of the building. A tower dedicated to the Virgin Mary will rise higher still, to 400 feet. At the center of the cathedral, an eighteenth tower dedicated to Jesus will top out at 560 feet.

The cathedral will be the tallest church in the world. It might have been even taller but its architect, the renowned Antoni Gaudí, declared it should not be taller than Barcelona's tallest hill, Montjuïc, because he believed his creation should not surpass God's.

Inside, the cathedral is just as massive in scale. The central nave, 300 feet long, rises to a height of 150 feet, almost exactly the same height as the tallest church nave ever completed, St. Peter's in Rome. The vault in the center, where the transept crosses the nave, reaches 200 feet. In the apse, a portal ascends to 250 feet.

I'll show more of the interior in a future post. Here's a tease:

Transept of the Sagrada Família
Looking across the transept from west to east.
But let's start on the outside. Construction on the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (i.e., the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) began in 1882 and completed a small crypt in 1883. Then the original architect resigned.

At that point, the project was taken over and transformed by the devout Antoni Gaudí. He knew he would not live to see it completed; as he wryly remarked, "My client [i.e., God] is not in a hurry." Though he designed and built remarkable projects throughout Barcelona (see, e.g., here, here, and here), the Sagrada Família was his life's work.

In preparation for the project, Gaudí studied numerous great cathedrals around Europe. His design synthesized a Gothic style with his own blend of natural forms and Modernisme aesthetic. As typical with Gaudí, the design incorporates numerous geometric shapes, such as parabolas, hyperbolas, helicoids, and ellipses.

Double twisted column, ellipsoid knot, hyperboloid vaults
A double twisted column, ellipsoid knot, hyperboloid vaults.
Started in 1894, the cathedral's Nativity Facade is the only part of his masterwork that Gaudí lived to see (somewhat) completed. He died in 1926, and the eastern facade was finished in 1930.

Nativity Facade in 1926
The facade in 1926.
The Nativity Facade is a visual feast, both from afar and near. You can't imbibe it all in one sitting; it requires multiple viewings, from multiple distances. Since there's a man-made lake directly in front of the facade, the designed approach is at an oblique to the three arched doors.

Approach to the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Família
Approaching the Nativity Facade in the morning sun.
Central portal of the Nativity Facade, the Portal of Charity
The approach directs you to view the archivolt of the central portal, the Portal of Charity.
From a distance, the Nativity Facade looks like its stone once melted, curling and dripping but then re-solidifying. Getting closer, you can see the immense profusion of carvings, and then closer still you admire the exquisite craftsmanship and stonemasonry.

Dripping stone on the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Família
Even when you get close, it can still somewhat resemble dripping stone.
Like both the Passion Facade and the yet-to-be-completed Glory Facade, the Nativity Facade has three portals for entry into the cathedral. Each portal is named for a theological virtue. On the left is the Portal of Hope, centered on Joseph; in the middle is the Portal of Charity, centered on Jesus; and on the right is the Portal of Faith, centered on Mary. So here's a place you can, appropriately, shout "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" {Ed.'s note: preferably in a thick Irish accent}, and no one can call you blasphemous or accuse you of taking the Lord's name in vain.

I can't possibly describe all or even most of the myriad carvings on the facade. But I will try to show some of the statuary that caught my eye, starting with the Portal of Faith:

Joseph and Mary present baby Jesus at the Temple
Joseph and Mary (far left and right) present baby Jesus at the Temple.
Carving of Mary on the Nativity Facade
Mary, the new Eve, can step upon the serpent because evil has no power over her.
I found the left portal, the Portal of Hope, to be the most visually striking. In particular, the carving of the Roman soldier slaying infants was an unflinching portrait:

At top, Mary and Joseph get married; at bottom left, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus flee to Egypt; at bottom right, a Roman legionnaire slaughters children on orders of King Herod; and in the middle, young Jesus sits on Joseph's knee.
Joseph and Mary flee with baby Jesus to Egypt, in the Portal of Hope
Joseph and Mary, with baby Jesus, flee to Egypt, led by an angel.
Roman legionnaire slaughters infants in the Portal of Hope, Nativity Facade
With a slain infant at his feet, the Roman legionnaire prepares to slaughter another while the child's mother pleads for mercy.
These carvings aren't the typical generic-visaged saints, or the somewhat humorous gargoyles, that you find at most cathedrals. The statuary at the Sagrada Família is personal. Individual. Each statue or setting shows a specific scene. Those scenes collectively provide a narrative within the portal, while the portals combine to illustrate a larger story. The overall facade not only demonstrates the theme but also provides a rich tapestry of symbology.

Viewed in this light, the Nativity Facade doesn't look like it's melting (which is how it's commonly described), but instead as though the facade is sprouting new growth. The stone isn't melting, it's germinating. If you look closely at many of the pictures in this post, you can see a wealth of flowers and plants covering the facade. Given the facade's theme of birth physical, spiritual, theological budding stonework makes much more sense than melting.

Central image in the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia
The central image of the facade.
With that understanding in mind, let's examine the central portal, depicting Jesus's birth in the manger. This Portal of Charity (i.e., Christian love) centers on Mary and Joseph with newborn Jesus in the manger. Three wise men look on from the left while shepherds gaze from the right. Angels sing and play instruments from above.

Newborn Jesus observed by an ox and mule
Newborn Jesus observed by an ox and mule.
Carving of mule head on Nativity Facade
The mule takes great interest.
Three wise men bearing gifts, Sagrada Família
Three wise men bear gifts.
Shepherds, lamb, and dog on Nativity Facade
The shepherds look on. As do the lamb and the dog.
Heavenly choir sings angelic hymn on Nativity Facade, Sagrada Família
A heavenly choir sings an angelic hymn, beginning: "Gloria in excelsis Deo . . ." ("Glory to God in the highest . . .") The words are carved into the stone below them. In this picture, you can see the "Gloria" below the leftmost angels.
Carvings of bassoonist, violinist, and lutist on Nativity Facade
Bassoonist, violinist, and lutist rocking out in praise. This has got to be the only bassoonist ever carved onto a cathedral, right?
At the very top of the Portal of Charity is the only scene that falls outside of Jesus's early life. It portrays a grown and bearded Jesus crowning Mary as the Queen of Heaven.

Coronation of Mary, carvings on Nativity Facade
The coronation of Mary.
Dividing the three portals are two pillars. One is supported by a turtle, the other by a tortoise. They symbolize the immutable and unchanging nature of the theological themes of hope, charity, and faith.

Turtle at base of pillar, Nativity Facade, Sagrada Família
The turtle at the base of one pillar.
Tortoise at base of pillar, Nativity Facade, Sagrada Familia
The tortoise supports the other pillar.
Atop the pillars are four trumpeters, two on each side. These angelic trumpeters announce the the arrival of the the Last Judgment. They trumpet in four different directions land, sea, heavens, and light representing the all-encompassing nature of the Apocalypse.

Trumpeting to the four corners of the Earth, Nativity Facade
Trumpeting to the four corners of Earth.
Rising above the three portals, at the pinnacle of the Nativity Facade, stands a painted stone cypress tree. At its base is a pelican, a symbol of the Eucharist. The long-lived evergreen cypress tree symbolizes Christ's eternal love. Perched above the tree stands a white dove atop a cross. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, the red cross represents Christ's blood, and the gold cross embracing the red cross represents God the Father holding his sacrificed son.

Gazing up the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia
You've gotta strain to see the cypress tree from the base of the facade. Jackson announced: "Christmas tree!"
Cypress tree and Jacob's ladder on the Nativity Facade, Sagrada Família
The cypress tree atop the Nativity Facade. The ladders at the base evoke Jacob's ladder.
Holy Spirit doves circle the cypress tree on the Nativity Facade, Sagrada Familia
The Holy Spirit circles the tree in the form of white doves.
Gaudí originally wanted the entire facade polychromed (i.e., painted) in the same manner as the cypress tree. That would have been amazingly garish. However, a painted facade would have further emphasized life and vitality, as a strong counterpoint to the facade on the opposite side of the cathedral.

Knowing the Nativity Facade would be the most generally pleasant in subject matter and execution, Gaudí cannily directed that construction on this facade be completed before work began on the other two facades. He feared that if construction began with either the Glory Facade or the Passion Facade, the public might recoil and the project would lose support. Currently, the Glory Facade including depictions of the seven deadly sins, purgatory, and Hell is under construction and likely won't be unveiled until the cathedral is completed.

Construction on the Passion Facade didn't begin until 1954. Its brutal sculptures were completed in 2005. It's a radically different approach and style from the Nativity Facade. More about the Passion Facade in an upcoming post. (See here.)


  1. Hello,
    I am writing a blog post on La Sagrada Familia and I wanted to ask permission to use your photos in it with giving you credit. Would that be possible? Thanks in advance!

    1. Yes, you may. Thanks so much for asking. :) Please provide a link back to this post when you do so. Good luck!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.