A perhaps unsurprising number of my favorite buildings in the world are churches, from grand basilicas to underground catacombs to hospital chapels. Due to my many personal connections there, one at the top of my list is the cathedral in Palma de Mallorca, affectionately referred to in the local Catalan dialect as “La Seu.” Because in 1230 King Jaume el Conqueridor directed the cathedral to be built on the site of a pre-existing mosque, the building is actually oriented toward Mecca. Today its stained glass windows and sweeping mariner-inspired baldacchino are almost literally breath-taking. And while Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is the infinitely more famous of his works, acclaimed Catholic architect Anonti Gaudi is largely responsible for the beauty of the Gothic cathedral on the shores of the Mediterranean as we encounter it today.
Gaudi blended his knowledge of science and art to construct or redesign some of the most famous and beloved buildings in Europe. Gaudi once wrote “Glory is light, the light of joy is the soul’s pleasure.” His works have a playful but intense dedication to this theme of light. All are famed for their airiness and the colorfulness that has in many ways become symbolic of and inextricable from Catalan self-identity, for which he zealously sought political independence from wider Spain. The above-mentioned Sagrada Familia is a testimony to such a religious and social vision, along with the scientific exactitude necessary to bring it into existence.
Started in 1882, Sagrada Familia is, like so many of the great historical cathedrals of Europe, a project of unfathomable length and complexity. It has been under construction for well over a century and is currently estimated to be finally fully completed in 2027.
Though Picasso famously despised his work, Gaudi’s influence on another of my favorite artists, the surrealist Salvador Dalí, is obvious.
Gaudi’s internal suffering is well-documented. Rejected by women because of his social awkwardness, plagued by illness throughout his life, and the only one of his siblings to survive his parents, biographical pieces by Mike Ladd, Josep Francesc Rafols and Gijs Van Hensbergen all posit that Gaudi’s embrace of Catholicism, vegetarianism, and a life of devout celibacy was forged in a crucible of pain and loss.
Today there is a movement underway in the church to canonize the deeply pious figure, known in some circles as “God’s architect.”
When he died unexpectedly after being struck by a tramcar on his daily walk to confession, the local newspaper proclaimed: “In Barcelona a genius has died! In Barcelona a saint has passed away! Even the stones weep for him.”
Some have gone so far as to assert that Gaudi represents the “exemplary Christian” — a disheveled and ascetic friend of lady poverty, struck down and left dying unconscious in the street because he was assumed to be a vagabond of no importance, staggering brilliance hidden in plain sight among the most “invisible” of society. Little did those stepping over him realize the spiritual force that would inspire millions to prayer was silently pulsing out into the gutter along with his blood.
With the recent tragic events in Barcelona, we ought to continue to seek joy cleansed with eyes of tears in celebrating the city’s most renowned resident and pray for the people who live in the shadow of both his towering edifices and his personal sanctity.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a native of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.