La Sagrada Familia: Barcelona's Unfinished Masterpiece by Antoni Gaudi

The Sagrada Familia, whose distinctive silhouette has become a symbol of Barcelona, attracts an estimated three million global visitors annually.
Susan Fourtané
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In 1872, Josep Maria Bocabella, a Catalan printer, bookseller, and founder of the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph was inspired by the Basilica de Loreto to build a church in Barcelona. In 1877, the project was commissioned to architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. On March 19, 1882, the construction of the apse crypt of La Basilica de la Sagrada Familia (The Basilica of the Holy Family) began under his direction.

Francisco de Paula del Villar's original design was of a large Gothic church of a standard form. The construction of the apse crypt was completed in his totality under his vision and direction before he resigned on March 18, 1883 due to disagreements with Bocabella.

 La Sagrada Familia in 1905
Source: Baldomer Gili i Roig, 1905/Museu d'Art Jaume Morera

Antoni Gaudí takes over the project

"It is not disappointment that I will not be able to finish the temple. I will grow old, but others will come after me. What must be always preserved is the spirit is the spirit of the work; its life will depend on the generations that transmit this spirit and bring it to life." -Antoni Gaudí

The project was later handed in for its continuation to the architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, who radically changed the design to better adapt it to his own characteristic architectural style. Antoni Gaudí was appointed director of the project in 1884. Josep Maria Bocabella died in 1892. He was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia.

At the start, the construction of the Sagrada Familia relied only on private donations gathered by its founder, Josep Maria Bocabella, who bought the land and started the work. Progress in advancing the construction was slowly since it depended on the amount and frequency of the donations. In 1936, the works were interrupted when the Spanish Civil War began and a group broke into the Sagrada Familia setting the crypt on fire.

Important materials, Antoni Gaudí's designs and documents involving the construction were then lost with only a few that could be saved or reconstructed. The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939. However, the construction of the Sagrada Familia was not resumed until the 1950s. Because most of Gaudí's original design documents were lost in the fire and the few saved had to be reconstructed the advancement of the construction was again extremely slow.

In order to speed things up, and thanks to modern technology, in 2015, architect Jordí Coll, implemented 3D printing technology to conceptualize how the new and old portions of the construction are going to integrate together. Jordí Colli was part of the team lead by head architect Jordí Fauli until 2017. Jordi Faulí, the current head architect, has set the completion date for 2026, after 144 years under construction.

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In his lifetime, and given the magnitude of the project, Antoni Gaudí could complete only a small portion of the Sagrada Familia reflecting Gaudí's original design and work. Despite the fact that Antonio Gaudí gave up all his other projects in order to focus entirely on the Sagrada Familia, only a quarter of the total construction involved the architect's work from when he took on the project in 1883 up to his death in 1926.

After this, the construction was continued by architects and craftsmen who had worked with Gaudí, at least until their death, then the project passed on to different hands. As time went by, the new architects and designers had only a few original sketches that had survived from the fire. They tried to continue the Sagrada Familia's construction in the best possible way inspired by Antoni Gaudí architectural style.

Sagrada Familia is home to Antoni Gaudí's tomb

In 1926, a tram struck Antoni Gaudí, who died from his injuries on June 10, a few days after the accident. He was 75 years old. Antoni Gaudí was buried in the Sagrada Familia. His tomb is located in the underground level surrounded by four chapels. Gaudí's tomb is in the chapel dedicated to the Virgin del Carmen. Visitors can visit Gaudí's tomb.

La Sagrada Familia towers
Source: Rob Oo/Flickr

When completed, the Sagrada Familia, a unique piece of Catalan Modernism, will become the tallest religious building in Europe, with the central tower reaching 170 meters (557 ft) and an inside nave reaching 60 meters height (196 ft). Comparatively, Montjuïc, the hill overlooking the Barcelona harbor, is 185 meters tall (almost 607 ft) and the city's highest point.

La Sagrada Familia Barcelona
Source: Susan Fourtané for Interesting Engineering Caption

The Sagrada Familia includes three facades; the Nativity Facade is the only part of the Sagrada Familia that was completed by Gaudí himself. The Passion Facade and the Glory Facade were both built after his death. Many people have argued that they do not reflect Gaudí's style and vision.

Gaudi planned 18 towers for the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, from which only eight are presently completed: four on the Nativity facade --with views over the east of Barcelona-- and four on the Passion facade --facing the city center. Twelve of the towers represent the apostles, four represent the evangelists, one is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the highest tower right in the middle of the Sagrada Familia represents Jesus Christ.

La Sagrada Familia outdoor statues
Source: Pixabay

Visiting the Sagrada Familia

Visiting the towers is a great way to explore the basilica's interior design and enjoy views of the city from 65 meters above the ground. To visit the towers, visitors can purchase the Top Views ticket online, which includes entry to Sagrada Familia, the towers, and the audioguide. In total, there are five different kinds of tickets available. The visit to the towers is not included in the basic entry price.

La Sagrada Familia interior
Source: haschelsax/Flickr

Each of the facades has a separate access point with an elevator to access the top of the towers. But all the visitors must take the stairs on their way down from both towers, a very narrow spiral snail's-shell-like staircase of over 300 steps.

La Sagrada Familia spiral staircase
Source: Pixabay

As symbolism goes, there is a lot of it in and out the construction. Religious symbolism may seem obvious for this kind of construction. But the most beautiful symbolism in the structure of the Sagrada Familia comes from nature.

La Sagrada Familia: Barcelona's Unfinished Masterpiece by Antoni Gaudi
Source: Antonio Tajuelo/Flickr

In the interior, there are pillars that resemble trees. If you look up at them and move around, their shape seems to change. A tortoise and a turtle hold up the pillars, representing both the planet Earth and the sea. Perhaps the most important impression, symbolism, and meaning come from the eye of the beholder.

La Sagrada Familia Basilica indoors
Source: Pexels 

Each visitor adds their own impression and the unique meaning from the associations the majestic structure symbolizes and represents to them. Antoni Gaudí's love and admiration for nature is obvious and well represented in the architect's design.     

La Sagrada Familia Basilica window
Source: Mayra Chiachia/Flickr

The Sagrada Familia church was consecrated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI on November 7, 2010. A church receives the canonical title of honor of basilica when the building is recognized by its antiquity, historical importance, or by its role as international centers of worship, usually in association with a major saint or an important historical event.


The title of basilica gives the church certain privileges such as the right to reserve its high altar for the pope, a cardinal, or a patriarch, and it also gives it international status. There are currently four major basilicas and 1768 minor basilicas in the world. The four major basilicas are all located in Rome.

The Sagrada Familia, whose distinctive silhouette has become a symbol of Barcelona, attracts an estimated three million global visitors annually. Currently, only ticket contributions help support the 25 million annual project.

The Basilica de la Sagrada Familia constitutes one of the main tourist attractions in Barcelona, contributing greatly to the overall economy of the Spanish city.  

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