By Zac Koons
Antoni Gaudi’s dream was to create a Bible out of stone, a dream that became — actually, is still becoming — the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, the most ambitious piece of Christian architecture in the modern era, the icon of Barcelona, and my single favorite church in the world.
Gaudi began his “Bible” in 1883 and he wanted to start with Christmas; that is, the first piece of his temple would be a grand entrance façade dedicated to the Nativity. This would be one of three entrance façades that, when combined, would preach the basic contours of the gospel to the world — the second being devoted to the Passion and the third to Christ’s second coming. Sadly, despite dedicating 42 years of his life to its construction, Gaudi never got to see even his first façade finished. On a summer morning in 1926, walking to church to make his daily prayers and confession, Gaudi was struck by a streetcar. So ascetic were his habits — eating frugally and wearing worn-out clothes and shoes — that passers-by assumed him to be a beggar, and so he did not receive adequate medical care. He died a few days later, having only seen one of the four Nativity bell towers completed.
But Gaudi’s Christmas story in stone still contains plenty for us to ponder. His plans and principles were followed fanatically — in both spirit and letter — by subsequent generations of his architectural apostles. And with the Nativity façade now standing in final canonical form, it invites exegesis like unto a scriptural text. And when we dig into it, we discover not just another dime-a-dozen Christmas crèche with sentimentalized sculptural accoutrements, but a shockingly fresh and deeply theological telling of the birth of Christ — one which, through the process of its design and construction, transformed Gaudi himself from a public celebrity of high society to an obsessively devoted and self-denying disciple.
It is an incarnational telling of the Incarnation in the deepest sense.
And so, in a moment of travel bans and still-depressing lockdown, allow me to offer a window of momentary escape to the bright skies of Barcelona. You can even stand with me virtually before the Nativity façade if you like.
The first thing one notices is not the sculptures at all, but rather everything filling the space between them. What looks to be a thousand abstract sandcastles melting into the stone are actually a thousand varieties of fauna and flora. On the whole, they give the façade an organic sort of unity, making one scene melt into another as if to say, “All these different stories are really one story.” Individually, they work both to set geographical context and to make theological argument through symbol, often intentionally blurring the lines between what is ancient and what is modern, what is biblical and what is Barcelonan.
The portal on the left, for example, where one finds the Holy Family’s flight, is decorated in the rich vegetation of Egypt, particularly of the Nile, where ducks and geese (the centerpieces of many a Christmas feast) float amongst riverbank reeds, water lilies, and papyrus; while the portal to the right, where one finds scenes of Jesus’s childhood and adolescence, is adorned in the desert climate of Nazareth, hosting spiky century plants and chameleons where gargoyles ought to be. Easter lilies and irises, along with branches from olive, cherry, and peach trees, emerge within the central portal as if planted in the plaster, while the central doors are flanked by two giant Mediterranean palm tree pillars that each rest on the back of turtles (actually, a tortoise to the left and turtle on the right, meant to distinguish which side of the church is closest to the sea). The central pillar is the beginning of an ascending theological typology, moving from the serpent-wrapped tree of the knowledge of good and evil at the bottom all the way up to the crowning Christmas cypress tree of life, with the Matthean genealogy, a pelican, the annunciation, and the centerpiece Nativity sculptural group taking up the middle.
Moving to the sculptures themselves, though predictable in content — one sees the Annunciation, Visitation, Presentation, shepherds, magi, a burdened donkey fleeing towards Egypt — their style was determined by Gaudi’s theological interests. Instead of molding idealized forms that imitated Greek sculptures or Renaissance paintings, Gaudi insisted on using the normal, working-class people of Barcelona as his models.
He recruited, for example, one of his own construction workers to pose for Joseph and a well-known neighborhood drunk for Judas; while the local military bugle corps, who regularly practiced in a nearby field, were the models for the trumpeting angels. He convinced a menacing giant of a man with six toes known to regulars of a nearby bar to pose as the Roman soldier carrying out Herod’s horrid orders. Gaudi took this incarnational logic to obsessive extremes. He borrowed a local peasant’s underfed donkey and chloroformed it so he could then cast the actual living animal in plaster (a process he repeated with all the chickens and geese). Perhaps too incarnationally, the sculptures of the slaughtered innocents are modeled on casts of actual stillborn children Gaudi obtained from a local hospital.
This intensity, even if occasionally overwrought, grew out of a theological commitment. Gaudi did not simply want to transport the people of Barcelona to first-century Bethlehem, he wanted to show them what it would look like for Christ to become incarnate in the Barcelona of his time. Gaudi’s Nativity façade is more than a Bible; it is a Bible come to life; it is a richly written Catalonian Nativity pageant.
There is another very subtle trick of incarnational theology hidden in Gaudi’s architecture: inverted proportions. That is, not all the sculptured scenes are the same size; instead, they are each intentionally distorted according to where they live on the façade. The higher up on the façade, the larger the sculpture is; the further to the left or right, the more proportionally distorted in the inverse direction. The intent being, all the scenes are oriented towards one viewing spot, one exact instance of latitude and longitude, designed so that, from there, you can take in the entirety of the story at once.
Or to put it more theologically, for Gaudi, the entire complex story of the Incarnation, spanning geographies, genres, and generations, not only has internal cohesion as a single story, but is all a single story pointed at you. It is shaped to and for humanity, in one particular time (modern Barcelona), yet for all times (meant to stand for centuries to come). This, for Gaudi, is about more than just telling the Christmas story with faces Catalonians would recognize; it is told in such a way that each person coming to see this Christmas story in stone actually comes to see themselves as characters in the story. Like Byzantine icons use inverted perspective to draw someone in and through themselves towards God in prayer, Gaudi’s façade does the same. The viewer, standing and staring, are themselves a sculpture in the story. Gaudi has invited you out of the audience and onto the stage.
Finally, Gaudi’s theological vision ascends one level higher, revealed when one steps further back and allows one’s gaze to float upward. The higher one looks on La Sagrada Familia, the more one leaves the world of the Bible and enters the age of the Church. The four bell towers of the Nativity façade are each devoted to an apostle (which totals twelve towers when including those on the other two façades). Toward the very top of each, curved episcopal shepherd’s crooks emerge from squared signet rings, and each are crowned with what look to be bishop’s mitres. The sculpted words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” run horizontal across each tower while “Hosanna” and “Excelsis” fall down vertically. One’s viewing experience, as it drifts upward, is transposed from catechesis below to worship on high. Gaudi’s intention is clear: when the tower bells ring, it is the apostles themselves inviting you to come inside. Gaudi’s church is more than a Bible, it turns out, and more than a pageant too; it is an entire journey of discipleship in stone.
Due to a second COVID-19 surge in Europe, the Sagrada Familia is currently closed to the public — an appropriate, but still tragic reality during, of all times, the Feast of the Nativity. At the same time, many of us are implementing our own appropriate but still tragic precautions this holiday season — we can’t travel to family; family can’t travel to us — marring this typically great feast with isolation and discouragement. Still, perhaps Gaudi’s Nativity contains a Christmas message of hope that meets this lonely moment like an antidote. Gaudi reminds us that Christmas isn’t about us doing the traveling anyway. It is about God traveling to us. All the way to Barcelona even. All the way to wherever we are. All the way to you. Gaudi’s Christmas story in stone is not about Christ coming among us then. It is about Christ coming among us now. The Incarnation is pointed at you. Merry Christmas.
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.