Thursday, June 23, 2011

Entry 93 6.20.11

Entry 93, June 20th, 2011, 7:51pm (ship time GMT +2)

Today I visited the Sagrada Familia, a Christian temple in Barcelona. It is basically identical in size and general layout to a cathedral, but as it is not intended to be the seat of a bishop it isn't technically a cathedral (or at least this is what I've heard). Designed by Gaudi, the famous Catalan architect, it has been under construction since the late 1800's and will need at least another 20 to 30 years to complete. Even in its incomplete form, it has become an emblem of Barcelona and Catalan culture in general, featuring work by many famous Catalan sculptors, stained glass artists, and architects other than Gaudi. Strangely enough, the basilica is funded totally by private donations (no government assistance or church monies) and entrance fees from the several million visitors it receives each year.

I can actually see it right now from the back deck over the top of my laptop as we pull away from the Barcelona cruise ship terminal.

We started getting a group of interested persons together yesterday night on the back deck, seeing as there was a bunch of people who hadn't been there yet. Getting to the basilica is about an hour's walk or fifteen minutes' subway ride, and most of us haven't been that far into the city yet. The wait to get inside the church is notoriously long, and so we intended to get off the ship around 9am . . . but as the group expanded, the time was pushed back further and further until finally we decided to meet at noon on the gangway.

We had almost ten people involved, but as soon as we stepped off the ship the group began to splinter. Some people were hungry, and wanted to go eat on La Rambla . . . I knew that as soon as we did that, we would be blowing at least twenty euros apiece and it would delay us for the entire afternoon (perhaps destroying our chances of seeing the cathedral at all). Others were leery about using the metro system in Barcelona (which is excellent, I might add). To make a long story short, Tyler and I were the only two left from our group who actually reached the cathedral!

The subway stops almost at the basilica's doorstep. Tyler and I had to crane our heads to see the top of the completed towers . . . and the central dome (due to reach upwards almost 170 meters) isn't even completed yet! We made our way around the church (it takes up an entire city block) to find the entrance, and sure enough the line was winding its way down the sidewalk. At this point Tyler balked, as he didn't feel like waiting in line, leaving me the sole survivor of the expedition (this seems to happen with some regularity). I bid him adieu and vowed to push onwards.

The line was moving more quickly than we had thought, though, and I was inside after perhaps half an hour. For three extra Euros (student ticket price was 10.50) I rented an audio guide, which proved to be a smart investment. Lots of useful information there.

The Sagrada Familia is not like any other cathedral you've ever seen. Viewed from outside, the basilica is a riot of complexity; a complex tapestry of stone that can shift moods as quickly as your eyes pass over it. Bell towers and stained glass windows thrust upwards like the shoots of young plants filling a gap in the forest canopy; in fact, the entire building is abuzz with the influence of nature, one of Gaudi's trademarks. The newest parts of the basilica are obvious, as the stone is white and fresh instead of the weathered brown that predominates in the older sections. Some parts of the building are more than one hundred years old, while others were laid only this year!

The basic floorplan is a cross, just as all other cathedrals, and the long end stretches away to the South with the Altar located at the North. The Eastern side is adorned with a facade celebrating the birth of Jesus, and was the first to be completed (and the only one completed during Gaudi's lifetime). Three large porticos (the center dedicated to the birth of Christ, while the left is about Joseph and
the right about Mary) support four large bell towers dedicated to various saints. The entire area is soaked in asymmetrical ornamentation. Plant and animal life (all species appropriate to the region where Jesus was born, showing the typical Gaudi eye for detail) winds through everything, and never before have I seen stone look so alive and fluid. The visitor could spend hours just picking out small details of the various scenes depicted on the Eastern side of the church.

The Western side, by contrast, depicts the death and resurrection of Christ. Instead of extensive ornamentation, the Western facade is stark and bare. A series of statues set into the rock tell the story beginning at the last supper and ending with the burial of Jesus. The statues themselves were designed and installed in the 90's and are not Gaudi's work. Instead of being round and full of life as on the Eastern side, these people are depicted as block-like figures, seemingly carved out of old, weathered wood. The story winds its way up the side of the facade – notable statues include Judas kissing Jesus as he betrays him, and a quartet of soldiers playing dice for Jesus's possessions. Above the facade, anchored between another four bell towers named for saints, is a four meter bronze statue of Jesus being resurrected, followed by a small dove representing the holy spirit. It is a chilling display, redolent with death and suffering.

The third facade on the South side of the church is barely started, but will be the most impressive of the three. It it supposed to answer all of life's important questions when it is finished, such as who we are, why we're here, and what we should do with our lives. Through the middle will be woven the Lord's prayer in sixty-odd different languages.

It's not the outside of the church that impressed me the most, though. The inner hall of the basilica is like a stone forest. The traditional concept of a cathedral has been turned upside down and inside out. Stone pillars rise to support the ceiling, yes, but they're made of four different types of rock with radically different coloring. Instead of arches, the pillars morph through a series of geometrical shapes before splitting like the branches of trees. The ceiling is a maze of tetrahedrons, like leaves, and the light filters through hidden windows giving the entire basilica a soft glow. Bulbous glass protrudes from the pillars, lighting the basilica at night. If Picasso had done the concept art for Avatar, and then someone had grown it in stone and pastels like a forest of trees, this is what it would look like.

Fifteen meters above the floor of the basilica runs the choir loft. It circles nearly the entire perimeter of the church, with space for over a thousand singers. The leafy ceiling is carefully constructed as a series of hyperbolic resonance chambers, meaning that the acoustics of the basilica are without peer. I can't imagine attending a service there . . . six thousand worshipers, surrounded by a thousand singers and four organs! Talk about surround sound!

The building itself is incredibly light without the flying buttresses typical of Gothic cathedrals. This is because Gaudi designed the curves of the ceiling by hanging weights on loops of string, mirroring the shape of the building except upside down. This produced exact hyperbolas for his plans, eliminating all forces except for compression from the arches. They had a model downstairs in the museum – it incredibly complex, an inverted dome of string, riddled with small lead weightslabeled for different pillars and struts.

Put simply, the Sagrada Familia is a breathtaking piece of architecture. I can't wait to go back in thirty years or so when it is finished . . . I think in another couple hundred years it could rival many other, more established wonders of the world.

My journey back (alone, this time) was uneventful, except that people keep asking me for directions. I was able to help them this time (in English and Spanish), which is an odd feeling. Do I look Spanish? I think not . . . why do they keep taking me for a local?

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