A sermon in stone

By Kathy Staudt

In 1965 I visited Washington DC with my girl scout troop, and was taken on a tour of the Washington “National Cathedral, which was then a work in progress. I don’t actually have a visual memory of what we saw – except a sense that it was confusing and hard to picture. I was from a New England Presbyterian background where not much emphasis was placed on aesthetics, so at that time I didn’t see the point of putting so much energy and labor into a church building. But I remember hearing that it might be completed by the 1990’s, and thinking that sounded like ages away. I could not know then that by 1990, when the cathedral was completed, we would be living in Washington, and that later in the 1990’s that cathedral and its schools and choral program would become a central part of our family’s life, and the beauty of that space would be formative to my life of worship and prayer. I thought of this recently when I had the opportunity to visit the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) temple in Barcelona this past month, and walked through a nave under construction, watching stonecutters at work on massive columns in a space still open to the sky.

Officially called the “Temple Expiatiri de la Sagrada Familia,” this fascinating building is a work in progress whose history and architecture embodies the vision of a generations of deeply committed Christians, both artists and donors, The project began in the late 1800’s, in an era of rising industrial prosperity and cultural burgeoning in Barcelona. (“Expiatory, ” I understand, means funded by the alms of the faithful: the project is entirely privately funded). The architect, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was a brilliantly original artist and a devout Roman Catholic with a deeply mystical sensibility and unique vision. He worked on this building over most of his career, making it the focus of his work during the last four or five years of his life. Gaudi died suddenly in 1926, run over by a streetcar, and work on the building was interrupted and thwarted again by upheavals in Spanish politics and the suppression of Catalonian culture at various times in the 20th century. But his plans and vision for the Sagrada familia were the focus of his life throughout a brilliant architectural career, and the artchitects of succeeding generations have taken up that vision, shaping it with their own voices and styles and with a continuing faithfulness.

Jacques Maritain said somewhere that if you want to be a Christian artist, you should be a Christian, live your faith, and then put all your energy into the perfection of your art work. The artists involved over generations in completing the Sagrada Familia have been faithful to the vision that Maritain describes . The result is a work with many distinct artistic voices, speaking of a common faith. It is something hard to put into words, but you experience it in the space, the stone carving and the architecture.

Over the century and more that it has been in progress, the Sagrada Familia temple has come to reflect a Christian vision uniquely suited to the 21st century, the century in which it is expected to be completed. The Nativity Façade depicts with great gentleness and humanity the story of the nativity and the mystery of Incarnation. It celebrates the virtues of faith, hope, and love in its 3 porticos. The stone carvings on this façade are lush and lavish and baroque, the human figures reflecting a gentle and beautiful humanity, amid depictions of nature – flowers, animals, and trees, which are Gaudi’s hallmark. Looking at this portal, which is now on the UN list of World landmarks, one experiences the connection between the Mystery of the Incarnation and our Creator-God’s love for the beautiful, material, bodily world where we live and the. Contrasted to this, the facade of the Passion, sculpted in the 1970’s by Josep Maria Subirachs, conveys the stories of Passion Week in carvings that are stark, linear and impressionistic, conveying the stripping-down of everything. The Resurrection portal and window bring this all together, and the projected towers that will top this building when it is finished will focus on the risen Jesus. So it is, as the guidebooks say, a “sermon in stone.” Like the medieval cathedrals, it re-tells the core of the Christian story. There are also details everywhere that speak to our time. We noticed a gargoyle on one capital in the cloister that depicted the devil handing a bomb to a terrorist! Elements of the creed and of church governance are also incorporated into the building, but the representations of the life of Christ, the focus on Jesus as the heart of the story, and the interweaving of all of this with natural imagery, remain striking to anyone who visits this building. In a post-Christian Europe, where people still appreciate beauty but are increasingly secular in orientation, this temple will preserve the story, and the artists’ belief in the truth of the story comes through, somehow, in the quality of their work.

Gaudi is known for the colorful ceramic tile work and the organic, non-linear shapes on his most famous buildings – especially the Casa Battlio, the Casa Mila and the Park Guell in Barcelona, and the turrets and roof ornaments of the Sagrada Familiia are among his most striking works in this medium. The colorful parts of the building are almost entirely reflections of natural objects – fruits, birds, trees. Inside the building, the huge, 5-part nave is now under construction. In keeping with Gaudi’s original vision, the huge columns that hold up the vaults of the nave are shaped like trees, and it really does feel as if one is walking through what one guidebook called a “mystical forest” inside that nave, — which is still open to the sky but will one day be a high-vaulted space, illuminated by both natural light and stained glass.

This is the part that struck me as so contemporary. The Sagrada Familia tells the Christian story in a building that also celebrates the beauty and strength of the earth, and our connection to Creation. In the century that will have to address global warming and our stewardship of the earth, Gaudi’s vision is even more compelling than it was in his time – when natural images were a more or less standard part of the “modernista”/ art nouveau vision. I do not know if I will get to see the completed Temple of the Sagrada familia in my lifetime – it looks as if they still have years of work to do. But remembering my first visit to the National Cathedral, I believe it will be finished one day, and I’m glad that this vision is being carried forward, embodying in space and stone the faith of generations of Christian artists.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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