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Wherein I visit a famous cathedral in Barcelona


The Nativity Facade

My first thought is that La Sagrada Familia looks like it’s melting. Along with other tourists, I pass through the gates to view the Nativity Facade before entering the cathedral. Bored teenagers stand alongside avid photographers and jostling tour groups, and I stand there too, looking up at the building, trying to make sense of the chaos adorning the exterior walls and wondering, why did I come again? All up and down the facade are groups of statues depicting biblical scenes, punctuated by rough patches of concrete and strange melty bits. It’s busy and messy, teeming with imagery. It’s a hoarder’s statuary.

One step inside, however, has me wondering if I’ve wandered off to a different building. Here, the lines are clean and focused and there is such beauty in the light. The pillars, made to resemble palm trees, are made of pale stone, the better to pick up the hues pouring through the stained glass windows. In the morning, gorgeous blues and greens flood the cathedral. The sun wraps around throughout the day to cast fiery reds and oranges at sunset. It’s breathtaking to watch light and space dance so well together.

I find myself stunned, uplifted. There’s a stone bench along the wall near where I entered, as though Gaudí knew his building would have this effect on people. I sit and gaze at the pillars bathed in blues and greens, at the ceiling which is supposed to remind one of the stars. It’s a marvel unto itself, and it certainly succeeds in making one contemplate the infinite. This is a place for larger-than-all-of-us concepts. This is eternity’s house.


Inside La Sagrada Familia

Incongruously, a Danish modern area for prayer has been set up smack in the middle of the cathedral. In this roped-off section, black folding chairs form rows and a stage with a lectern butts up against a stark wooden wall. A man in a security uniform stands at attention on one side of the stage. It’s all very makeshift, though all visitors know that Sagrada Familia is not yet complete, and won’t be for at least a decade longer.

Above and behind the wooden wall floats Jesus under what looks like the top of a carousel. He’s out of place, this dangling heavenly host on a cross, ribs protruding from an emaciated body. He’s surrounded by a ring of lights that look like candles in orange holders, as though he’s hosting the worst seance imaginable, and with some of the strangest results. The golden yellow carousel topper is decorated with words scrawled in red, but they are too far away to read.

The cathedral isn’t square, but in the places most resembling corners are curved staircases, also made of pale stone with iron railings. I have never before known that the sweep of a staircase could make my heart ache, that a shape so perfect could evoke a longing for… for what? For god? For life? I can’t settle it, but as I return my gaze to the beautiful blue and green light embracing the interior of the cathedral, I cease to worry.

I exit through through the Passion Facade. Whereas I entered through a scene of chaos, the other side of the building is yet another complete mismatch. It’s stark, war-like. The edges of statues are strong and crisp. The depictions of suffering are bold, unblinking. This is a celebration of pain, of Jesus’ crucifixion, and while I appreciate the clean lines and the six inclined pillars, the subject matter is too morose for my taste, too severe.

It’s all such a mixed bag, but what has stuck with me from my visit to La Sagrada Familia was the feeling I had inside the cathedral, the sense of wonder that so often seems lost in daily life, the appreciation of beauty that drove all other thoughts from my mind. Because it is breathtakingly, heart-achingly beautiful. I think of it as one of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever eaten… on really crappy bread.


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