Papal Visit to Barcelona: A Theological Floor Plan

As we continue our series this week leading up to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Barcelona this Sunday for the dedication of the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Familia, this is a good opportunity for us to get a sense of the planning and reflection that has gone into the building, from a theological perspective. So much of what is written about the building focuses on its style, but so little focuses on the symbolism employed by Gaudi and those adhering to his plans for the building. No doubt this is because we once again find ourselves living in a secular – and indeed I would go so far as to say, anti-clerical age, where the history of salvation is unknown to those writing about what are really theological matters, and the theologians whom these reporters tend to turn to are usually the sort of Catholics who in an earlier age would have received at best a tongue lashing from St. Vincent Ferrer.

In any case, reproduced below is the floor plan for the basilica. It is quite frankly going to be impossible for me in a single blog post to go into every single bit of religious symbolism in the design. There is so much thought and reflection that went into the plan that it is astounding, and I suspect that many of my readers, who may have assumed that the Sagrada Familia is simply a random, weird building, will be extremely surprised as they pour over the details of the plan and realize how the entire project fits together like a stone jigsaw puzzle of Christianity.

For example, if we walk up the large flight of stairs at the bottom of the plan, labeled “Gloria”, this will be the entryway to the main entrance to the basilica. At this point, the only thing finished for this facade are the giant bronze front doors, which His Holiness will be walking through on Sunday. Because the building of this part of the church is going to involve the demolition of some nearby apartment buildings that were built during the Franco period, when no one thought the Sagrada Familia would ever be finished, work on this final facade is going to take some political maneuvering as much as engineering.

As we walk up the stairs to the main entrance to the basilica, we will notice two unusual objects: on our left, a large water fountain, and on the right, a perpetually burning cauldron. The significance of these, as well as their location in relation to the building, will become apparent momentarily. So let us not linger but approach the main portal into the church.

This “Glory Facade” will have multiple columns supporting the whole, and each is dedicated differently. The first set of seven columns correspond to the Seven Cardinal Virtues. Behind these are nine larger columns dedicated to the hierarchy of the angels – Dominions, Archangels, Principalities, etc. And behind these are four enormous columns dedicated to St. Andrew, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. James.

The entire facade will be dedicated to showing the creation of the world, but it is split by the use of these last four columns. The two on the right, being those of fishermen, are to delineate the part of the facade dedicated to the importance of water in our faith. There will be a large sequence showing Noah and the Ark, for example. The two on the left, being St. Paul of the fiery temper and St. James the Moor Slayer, are for the part of the facade indicating the importance of fire in Judeo-Christian theology. So on their side we will see, for example, the Ark of the Covenant. And now we understand the water and fire we saw back on the entrance plaza.

This also explains the division of the main facade, since the Baptistery is on the “water” side, and the Reconciliation Chapel is on the “fire” side. There will be seven doors leading into the church, dedicated to the Seven Sacraments. That on the far left leads into the Baptistery, and so is dedicated to Baptism, and that on the far right is dedicated to Penance, for it leads to the Reconciliation Chapel. The other five sacrament doors lead directly into the basilica, with the central of the five doors being that of the Eucharist, of course. Above the central door will be a representation showing God the Father at the top, The Holy Spirit, then Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the house of Nazareth, and finally Adam and Eve at the bottom as the root of humanity.

However the Glory Facade is not only the main entrance into the church, but it is also the entrance to the cloister that will wrap around the outside of the building. Normally one expects a cloister to be on the interior of a structure, of course, such as in the grounds of a monastery or cathedral. In this case Gaudi has turned things inside out, so that the church is inside of a covered cloister and rises out of the midst of it.

If we take the cloister portion to the left, heading to the West Front, we will walk along a Via Crucis lined with chapels, and leading to the Facade of Christ’s Passion. If we take the cloister path to the right, we pass through an area dedicated to spiritual direction, again lined with chapels, culminating in a large chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat and the entrance to the Nativity Facade at the East Front. From either of these facades, the cloister continues through more chapels until we reach the back, north cloister, which is formed of two giant domed Sacristies.

These two Sacristies are connected behind the apse with two shorter cloister segments. That on the left, NW side is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, since it is connected to the cloister leading to the Passion Facade, and that on the right, or NE side, dedicated to Our Lady in Glory, since it leads to the Nativity facade. This north section of the cloister is bisected by a giant tower with a domed chapel beneath dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, uniting the favor she received from Heaven in being made the Mother of God with the suffering she had to go through as predicted by Simeon in the Temple.

Again, gentle reader, this is just a small sampling of the plans for this building; I have not gone over every planned detail, even of these few sections which I have mentioned here. One could easily write a very thick book explaining all of the theological significance of not only what Gaudi’s designs mean, but how they relate to each other, and why certain events or persons or concepts he thought fitting to put together in certain parts of the building. While the Sagrada Familia can certainly be admired as a work of architecture in and of itself, for Catholic visitors reasonably well-formed in the faith – and I daresay for those who wish to understand it better – the experience of visiting the basilica will allow them to see, and hopefully reflect and pray about, the great mysteries of our Catholic Faith.

Now that we know a bit about what will be taking place on Sunday, from yesterday’s blog post on the missal to be used at the Papal Mass, and also a bit more about the floorplan of the building, we will be taking a look at the man himself: Gaudi is often considered a forbidding, mysterious figure, genius or madman depending on whom you speak to, but he was not only a very devout Catholic, he had a very Catalan sense of humor and loved being a Catalan, a fact which I hope to highlight for my readers tomorrow.

The present floor plan for the completed Sagrada Familia
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