The Sagrada Familia – Love it or Hate it?
People love the Sagrada Familia. It’s the #1 rated tourist site in Barcelona and the most visited tourist attraction in Spain. Look at reviews on Trip Advisor: people gush all over themselves when writing about the Sagrada Familia. So I almost feel reluctant to say it: the Sagrada Familia didn’t impress us.
I’ll get to that later…
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The Sagrada Familia is Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece. Gaudi (1852 -1926) was a Catalan architect with 4 great loves in his life: architecture, nature, religion and a love for Catalonia (he was actually arrested by the police for protesting for Catalan independence). He is today regarded as the most famous Catalan in history and is widely loved in his homeland.
Obvious in Gaudi’s work is his use of stained glass, ceramics and ironwork. There were Oriental influences in his work as well as gothic and art nouveau elements. But the overriding style is Catalan Modernism, a style where asymmetrical shapes are incorporated into design. You’ll see a lot of rounded shapes, curved lines and the use of elements found in nature (leaves, animals, flowers). Catalan Modernism has shaped Barcelona – it’s not just an architectural style but also a cultural movement, a movement that has made Barcelona a cultural and artistic capital. And it’s not just Gaudi – other architects such as Lluís Domènech I Montaner have also contributed to Calalan Modernist architecture in Barcelona (we were very impressed by Montaner’s work and recommend that visitors to Barcelona see Sant Pau hospital and Palau de la Música Catalana). But it is Gaudi that is the poster boy for Catalan Modernism.
Besides the architectural styles, it is Gaudi’s architectural techniques that make him stand out. He wouldn’t draw out detailed architectural plans, instead he would use three-dimensional scale models and moulding to carry out his projects. Even if you don’t love his work you can’t say that he wasn’t a genius.
But as much as someone is a genius and his work extraordinary, it doesn’t mean that you have to love his work…
The Sagrada Familia
The Sagrada Familia is Gaudi’s magnum opus, his masterpiece to which he dedicated most of his life’s work. Work started on the church in 1882 and it is scheduled to be completed in 2026 (that’s 143 years!). Despite the church not being finished it is already on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (having been added in 2005).
Our impressions of the Sagrada Familia
The Sagrada Familia is huge. Our first vision of it was of the back of the church. We didn’t really know what to make of the stark lines in the design or of the weird, angular (and unhappy) sculptures.
Going around to the front (where you enter the grounds of the church), we looked up. Again we weren’t inspired. Lissette said it well: “it looks like a melting sandcastle”. There weren’t many discernible features. Like the back, there is no inspiration, no happiness in the design. Having gone through the gates and through the security check, we had a closer look at the sculptures. They looked almost amateurish and lacking detail.
We walked into the church. You can’t help but be impressed by the multitude of colors being reflected by the huge panels of stained-glass windows. The light show is beautiful.
The columns, the designs on the ceiling, the weird “pods” (where the columns turn into tree branches) are otherworldly. They look like something out of a Sci-fi movie. It’s different than anything you’ve probably seen before.
But when you get past that there’s not much. It is a very stark church. The Altar, over which a small Jesus statue hangs, looks almost like an afterthought. Above the entrance, the walls look like they were designed based on a cheap Disney castle from the early days of animation. The chapels behind the altar are empty, safe for some television sets displaying information on the church. There’s a section where there’s a museum showing off obscure things like candle sticks from the late 19th century (why?? Why do I need to see candle sticks from 1890?)
I walked out of the back of the church and studied the stark figures that we had seen from afar. I didn’t feel any more inspired.
We stayed in the church about an hour and a half. We had paid 26 Euros each and Lissette told me we weren’t leaving until we had gotten our money’s worth. I admit I spent about 20 minutes sitting on a bench and looking at my phone.
That’s how excited the Sagrada Familia left me feeling.
Barcelona was the last stop on a month-long trip through Spain where we had seen some fantastic churches – places like the Mezquita-Cathedral in Cordoba, Catedral Primada in Toledo, the Cathedral of Ávila, Segovia Cathedral, the New and Old Cathedrals in Salamanca, the Burgos Cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza. Incredible Cathedrals which all left me inspired by their beauty.
The Sagrada Familia didn’t do that for us.
But you might feel differently, Gaudi’s Sagrada is above all else a piece of art. And art is subjective.
Have you seen the Sagrada Familia? Do you love it or hate it?
More on Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia in this BBC article
Related: The Best Moorish Sites in Spain (and our favorite!)
Related: Why Now is a Great Time to Visit Spain (it’s what we’re doing)
Related: Barcelona is Overrated
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You’re not the only one! Many locals share your view (at least I do). Still, this is a private endeavor not financed with public money so who cares! It actually looks good, from a distance.
You can actually see two different styles, identified by old (i.e. dirty) or new (i.e. more or less clean) stone. I personally dislike the new constructions, statues or decorations. Gaudi’s style is all about organic, flowing structures (never had a decent straight edge in his workshop). Spires should be round, but are actually polygonal (8, 12, or 14 segments depending on the spire), which I believe is a side effect of using pre-build modules sourced from different stone masons and assembled on site.
Statues and decorations are non-realistic figurative style (your “stark lines in the design or of the weird, angular (and unhappy) sculptures”). The old statues and decorations are something else entirely and more in the intended Gaudian style.
Gaudí never left full blueprints or drawings, so who’s to say what is right or wrong?
But, since this is an expiatory temple, I guess figures must be sad, remorseful, contrite, and awaiting judgement…
If I can choose, I prefer an 11th century, weather beaten, half crumbled Romanesque church lost in some mountain town. Plenty of those in the Pyrenees with monumental hikes attached. Take a look, if you have the time https://magicospirineos.com/vall-de-boi
I loved it! It has been 10 years and I hadn’t really known what to expect when we visited it. We were there on a sunny morning and the light coming inside the cathedral was magical. When I looked up, I felt like I was in a stone forest, the pillars like giant trees with beams of light coming down through their branches. I was also entertained by all the whimsy! Around every corner there was something interesting to see. Even along the narrow spiral staircase there were little peekaboo surprises. This is the only cathedral that my teenagers actually appreciated. I agree that the figures on the outside are somewhat depressing but for me that kind of represents the dichotomy of religion. On the one hand you have the wrath of a vengeful god and the human condition and on the other you have a lightness of spirit with joy and even humour! (I am not actually a very religious person, just a literature major:)
Thank you Tonja, I feel your passion for it and I appreciate a different viewpoint 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment.
oh it did it for me! I loved it! Taking the lift up and walking up the top is awesome! Yes it’s different and little whacky! but it’s an incredible piece of art and architecture!
Elevator wasn’t working when when went 🙁 . Would probably have been the highlight for me.
barbara c jones
my hubby and I saw most of what Gaudi created in Barcelona, did not go into the sagrada church, too many people outside to get in and it was very very hot. Bought books at the bookstore at the other Gaudi creations around the city, that was satisfying. I am not for large tourist crowds anyway, they are mostly rude and pushy and I do not need that behaviour. I liked Gaudi’s visions, he is a true master. Saw also the cathedral in Palma de Mallorca where he did great stuff. I do not dismiss his genius, but the sagrada church, although awe-inspiring, gets too much glory.
Thanks Barbara. We were lucky going during Covid times (Feb 2022). Actually, we saw places like Cordoba, Toledo, Avila, Segovia and Salamanca and saw relatively few tourists. We were shocked. It was only when in Barcelona we saw a lot, but still (compared to pre-Covid times), it wasn’t full of the tourist hordes.
I like the inside of the Sagrada Familia more than the outside. The inside is soaring and very open compared to most cathedrals. But overall, it was okay. My take is this is someone’s vision of a cathedral. Would I build my house to be like this? No way! But, I see it for what it is, a vision of a grand worship place by a very religious follower of Catholicism.
On the other hand, some of Gaudi’s other structures are more inviting. La Pedrera, Parc Guell, or Casa Batllo are more my speed.