Pope Benedict XVI visits Spain - 2010

Gaudí and the Holy Family

Most of the renowned artists who lived during the last century weren't known for being particularly religious. But while many cultural pioneers were fleeing from faith, Spain's greatest architect was building for God alone.

Pope Benedict XVI will consecrate Antonio Gaudi's materpiece, Barcelona's Cathedral of the Holy Family, as a basilica this weekend, with the architect himself being considered for beatification.

The cathedral, Gaudi's final and greatest work, has been under construction for more than a century. Dwarfing many surrounding buildings in the urban center, it will become the tallest church in the world when completed.

Already long acknowledged as a masterpiece, it displays the architect's unusual combination of influences: the beauty of nature, the significance of tradition, his Catalan heritage, and his own complete originality. Most of all, however, it testifies to the faith that shaped Gaudi's life.

Antonio Gaudi was born on June 25, 1852, and baptized the next day at the Church of St. Peter in the town of Reus. Afflicted with poor health in his youth, he developed a keen eye for observing the natural world and the forms of living things. He excelled at geometry, and attended a school known for its strong Christian faith and Marian devotion.

His gifts as an illustrator and draftsman gradually came to light– along with some of his artistic and personal idiosyncrasies. The young Gaudi opened his mind to many new stylistic influences that were emerging as the rigid forms of 19th century classicism began to fade. At the same time, he also embraced his Catalan identity and its aesthetic influence.

Initially working in a neo-Gothic style influenced by English revivalists, he came to incorporate increasingly unusual contours, mimicking nature and the human body.

Gaudi's stylistic innovations both amazed and baffled Barcelona, sometimes simultaneously. His last “secular” project, the Casa Mila, resembles a wavy set of cliffs. Its balconies look like abstract iron corollaries to the trees on the streets below. The sculptural forms atop the roof resemble anthills, human faces, and castle ornamentation. Virtually every signifier of Gaudi's indefinable style was there; he had hit his artistic stride.

That building was Gaudi's last completed secular project. He had already begun work, in 1883, on a project he did not expect to see completed in his lifetime. From 1914 to his death in 1926, he worked exclusively on the Cathedral of the Holy Family. Gaudi's consuming project summoned all of his artistic talent, in a single act of faith.

Combining his love of ornamentation and grandeur with the fruits of prayer and theological meditations, Gaudi's cathedral is clearly more traditional than most of his other later works. But its unusual arch shapes, brightly-colored spires, and authoritative yet joyous-looking towers clearly reflect the artist's own vision. He hoped that other architects, designing future cathedrals, would look upon it as the beginning of an entirely new style– albeit one harmonious with the past.

Gaudi did not worry about the time it would take to complete the cathedral. “My client,” he famously remarked, “is not in a hurry.” But the public noticed how he seemed to disappear into the work, withdrawing from public life and living on the premises of the unfinished church.

Once known as a dashing and stylish young man, the unmarried architect now became known as a sort of hermit. But he did not cease to visit the Church of St. Philip Neri, where he prayed for some time every night.

When a group of students from his old primary school visited the unfinished cathedral, Gaudi explained to them that the work was an expression of what he had learned as a child: “the divine history of the salvation of man through Christ incarnate, given to the world by the Virgin Mary.”

Gaudi died in 1926, after a tragic accident in which he was run over by a trolley car. Mistaking him for a beggar, the driver did not stop to help him. Once taken to the hospital and recognized, Gaudi refused any preferential treatment, saying his place was “here among the poor.”

When he died of complications from the accident, three of the cathedral's eastern towers, and one of its three planned facades, were complete. The current builders expect its full completion in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi's death. Millions of visitors to Barcelona have already toured the cathedral. Revenue from visitors is expected to cover the remaining work on the main facade and sacristies, as well as the completion of its central tower.

As Pope Benedict prepares to consecrate Gaudi's masterpiece as a basilica, dedicating its altar and celebrating the first Mass, there are signs that the architect himself may be a candidate for beatification. A small group of laymen with a miniscule budget decided to investigate the possibility in 1992, and the cause for the canonization of Antonio Gaudi finally opened in Rome in 2003.

In another famous poetic comment on the ambitious scale of the Cathedral of the Holy Family, Gaudi once remarked that St. Joseph –Christ's foster father, “the carpenter”– would accomplish the completion of this house for Jesus and Mary.

In this, perhaps Gaudi was prescient. Pope Benedict XVI –who is both a devotee of St. Joseph, and originally named after him (as Joseph Ratzinger)– will dedicate it as a basilica, as he visits Barcelona on Nov. 7.