Lift Your Eyes Unto the Heavens: How Gaudi Gets Atheists to Pray

Yesterday L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published an interesting and thoughtful opinion piece on the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia and its symbolic importance by Lluís Cardinal Martínez Sistach. In it, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Barcelona makes a very keen observation about something which, for all my knowledge about Barcelona and the work of Antoni Gaudí, I had not noticed before. The Sagrada Familia has not only become the central, universally recognized symbol of the city of Barcelona but it is also, as a result of the passage of time, now a structure which is spiritually and physically at the center of the city as well.

At the time construction began in the 19th century, the site of the present Basilica stood on the outskirts of town. Now, with the development and filling in of Barcelona up to its natural geographic boundaries of a ring of mountains to the north, the sea to the south, and rivers on east and west, it lies more or less at the center of the city. As the Cardinal notes, this was something which Gaudí himself hoped might happen with the passage of time, as he observed the plans for the city’s “Eixample” or “Expansion” District.

Taking this fact as his reference point, His Eminence describes how the central, dominating presence of the Basilica, which can be seen from all over the city, stands against the tide of European secularism which seeks to quash it. “In the midst of a modern, European city,” writes Cardinal Sistach, “and in a temple in which secularism seems intent on confining religious expression to the private sphere, obscuring the visibility of faith and religious communities, this Basilica, visible from every corner of the city, is an invitation to not stop at the horizontal dimension of human existence but to lift our gaze upwards.”  It is this factor, one of height, which in combination with the centrality of its location makes the Basilica a very effective tool for drawing the mind of man to heavenly things.

The design of this tremendously lofty church, which when completed will be the tallest church in the world, demands that everyone, even the unbeliever, look up in order to take it in. It is true that when he does so he will, at the very least, think about God – even if only for a moment. However this was not enough for Gaudí.  The man affectionately nicknamed “God’s architect” clearly understood the psychological predisposition of human beings to think about the eternal and the spiritual when they are presented with a lofty religious structure, but sought to make man do more than just think.

As shown in the photo below, Gaudí had the words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” or “Holy, Holy, Holy”, carved in gigantic Neo-Gothic script all over the bell towers. For my non-Catholic readers, the “Sanctus” is a hymn that is sung or said during the mass in praise of God, and puts us in mind not only of God’s majesty but also, seemingly paradoxically, of the humility of Jesus, using words from His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, before His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. The text of the hymn reads as follows:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis

The decision of the architect to place these giant words from the mass all over the upper parts of his building was not merely a decorative one, but rather an intentional effort to take advantage of human nature. “All who read them, even the incredulous, will intone the hymn to the Holy Trinity,” Cardinal Sistach quotes Gaudí as saying, “as they discover its contents: the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, which while they are reading it will guide their gaze towards the heavens.”  In other words, because literate human beings automatically read words when they see them,  without having to stop and tell their brain, “Okay now we are going to read something,” Gaudí causes the viewer to praise God without even having to think about it.

Perhaps some of the more jaundiced among my readership may view this as bit of a cheek or a dirty trick on the part of Gaudí. Yet one cannot deny its effectiveness, in making the visitor reflect on God and his relationship with Him, even if he does not really want to.  The architect’s design choice and the involuntary human act which inevitably accompanies it also brings to mind the beautifully cosmic words of the Prophet Issaiah: “Lift your eyes unto the heavens. Who created all of these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.”

Love or loathe the building (and yes, I know many of my traditionalist readers loathe it), the Basilica does its job extremely well, thanks to Gaudí’s insistence that it stand as a beacon of Christianity at the heart of a major city. For even those hate Christianity, or those who hate Gaudí’s architecture, nevertheless find themselves discussing and debating not an office building, a house/apartment block, or public space when they are in Barcelona, but rather a church. And a church which, at that, actually causes them to engage in prayer. In a city which continues to plunge headlong into greater and greater anarchy and secularism, as Cardinal Sistach recognized in his opinion piece, the Sagrada Familia is something which, like the 800lb gorilla, cannot be ignored.


The word “Sanctus” carved in bands rising along the Nativity Facade
of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia

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2 thoughts on “Lift Your Eyes Unto the Heavens: How Gaudi Gets Atheists to Pray

  1. Pingback: Also this. « ellyjean

  2. I am a traditionalist (in many ways) and I love Sagrada Familia. In every respect, both in its larger aspects as and in its every nook and cranny, there is some detail that captures the attention. It is the church that dares you not to stare at it.

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