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In this column, a member of the NCR staff or a contributor offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

April 19, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 5




Margot Patterson To build a cathedral is immense, crazy work

By Margot Patterson, NCR opinion editor

Standing in the middle of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, you can see the open sky above you. The cathedral was begun in 1884 and it will be another 20 years before it's completed. Eight spiky towers soar in place; another 10 are yet to be constructed. The day I was there, a half dozen workmen were on site working in one area of the half-built cathedral while visitors wandered through looking at what is surely one of the wonders of modern architecture.

"Sublimely surreal" is one term for Antoni Gaudi's work; others find his masterpiece simply bizarre. Certainly it is "Gothic," with all the connotations that word can convey: odd, fantastic, distorted, primitive, eccentric and original. The columns of the cathedral look like immense trees flowering into odd, organic excrescences. Gargoyles in the form of lizards and frogs jut from the stonework.

To build a cathedral is an immense and crazy work. No sane person would contemplate such a superhuman endeavor, but then Gaudi was not sane, many people thought. As a schoolboy, he was asked to draw cemetery gates for a class. Instead of gates, he drew a hearse with two mourners. His teacher looked at it and pronounced him either a genius or a madman, a point others would go on to make about Gaudi throughout his life.

The master of Catalan modernism who became Spain's most famous architect was, like his work, an oddity. As a child he had rheumatism, which prevented him from playing with other children his age and required him to ride a donkey to get places. He was a dandy in his youth, dressed in the latest fashions and was fond of hats. Rebuffed twice in love, he never married, and in old age is said to have shuffled around the streets of the city nibbling on bread crusts and seeking alms for his cathedral. When he was run over by a tram and died in 1926 at the age of 74, he looked so much like a vagabond that he didn't receive proper emergency care and it was three days before his body was identified. When it was, half of Barcelona dressed in black to honor his passing.

But Gaudi was an original, and the power of a big idea possessed him. The Sagrada Familia was his life work. He worked on it 43 years, and in the last years of his life he moved out of his home and slept on the site. He said his intention in the Sagrada Familia was to write the Bible in stone. He didn't always confine himself to the Bible. An anarchist is depicted on the facade, and a large sculpture of a knight on horseback on one of the doors brings to mind Don Quixote, Spain's great literary hero. Perhaps this is because there was something grandly quixotic about Gaudi himself. The master of modernism was not a modern figure. He was pious, politically reactionary and loved the medieval era. He remained faithful to the Gothic style in the Sagrada Familia but made it his own. "Funky Gothic" describes the sinuous lines and curves of the church, which exudes an exuberant vegetable vitality.

The Sagrada Familia makes one marvel anew at the concept of the cathedral and the vision and labor necessary to construct it. Affecting in a different way is Barcelona's other cathedral. The 14th century La Seu shows the effects of human history on the cathedral. The first chapel on the right when you walk in commemorates the Battle of Lepanto, when the Holy League fought off the Ottoman Turks in 1571. Prominently displayed is a cross that was carried on a galleon that took part in the battle. Other chapels lining the church are dedicated to saints, many of whom I had never heard of before but who all had stories to tell. Underneath the church in the crypt is the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia, a 13-year-old martyr who is the patron saint of Barcelonona.

Editor's Note

To learn more about Sagrada Familia Cathedral:

  • View photos of the cathedral.
  • The official Web site for El Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. Part of this site, like the cathedral, is still under construction.
  • To learn more about La Seu:

  • Photos of the cathedral.
  • Some history.
  • In honor of St. Eulalia and the young age at which she died, 13 geese are kept in the cloister next door. These have a little swimming pool to glide around in. Palm trees and orange trees grow in the 14th-15th century enclosure. Late in January when I visited, there were also five black roosters in a chicken coop, a variety of potted plants, a Christmas crèche and a small fountain that sent water running under a tiny footbridge. Several toddlers were unsteadily making their way over this drawbridge when I visited, and the busy scene put me in mind of a petting zoo. Cloisters are commonly lovely; this one in Barcelona was also intimate, homey, casual and haphazard.

    La Seu presents the human face of the cathedral; the Sagrada Familia the unfinished skeleton of a buoyant rendition of a familiar form.

    Like the architect, the Sagrada Familia is sui generis. But this odd, extraordinary church made me think not only about Gaudi's singular vision but about the cathedral in general, or the Gothic cathedral at any rate. Perhaps it's because seeing an unfinished cathedral makes you realize how much is required to finish it and how peculiar it is that people started it in the first place. There's never any reason for a cathedral, after all, except to build something beautiful in honor of that which is bigger and grander than ourselves. Materialists and rationalists and the aesthetically challenged, the why-not-do-it-in-beige-and-for-as-little-money-as-possible crowd, should be maddened by such lavish expenditure of time, talent, energy and material on a purpose that is spiritual, i.e., frivolous and non-utilitarian, but of course few people can long remain maddened or irritated inside a cathedral.

    "Something beautifully done -- be it tiny or a cathedral -- makes me feel the truth," wrote John Ruskin.

    Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. She can be reached at

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