Antoni Gaudi i Cornet was the very opposite of a cultural subversive, and all that side of the French Surrealists — their fantasies of revolution, their hatred of the Church, their love of Stalin — would have disgusted him. Nor did he think his work had the smallest connection with dreams. It was based on structural laws, creaft traditions, deep experience of nature, piety, and sacrifice.
The last two were fundamental. Gaudi was a Catholic who believed in papal infallibility, episcopal authority, and the perennial philosophy of the Church. Far from being modernist in spirit, the Sagrada Familia was commissioned and designed as an ecstatically repressive building that would atone for the sins of modernism and the “excesses” of democracy. Gaudi was convinced of the reality of both grace and divine punishment: “Man is free to do evil, but he pays the price of his sins: God corrects us constantly, he castigates us all the time, and we must beg Him to punish and then console us.” His imaginative life was as much bound up with ideas of death, obedience, penance, deliverance, and transcendence as any of the mortality-haunted Spanish geniuses of the past: Saint Ignatius of Loyola, or Saint John of the Cross. “The idea of death,” he remarked to one of his disciples, “can never be separated from the idea of God; that’s why the churches have tombs in them … without thinking on death there is no morally or physically good life.” And again, “Everyone has to suffer. The only ones who don’t suffer are the dead. He who wants an end to suffering wants to die.”
That’s a passage from Robert Hughes’s terrific 1992 book “Barcelona,” a history of the great Catalan city. I bought it just before a quick trip to Barcelona in 1994, and started it on the flight over. I deeply regretted not having read the whole thing before my visit. It’s a wonderful book. Anyway, I think one thing (but not the only thing) wrong with contemporary church architecture is that it has exiled all memory of death. Which, ironically, is why it is so spiritually dead.
As you may know, during the Spanish Civil War, the leftist sacked the crypt and the workshop at the Sagrada Familia, and destroyed all of Gaudi’s notes and plans for the building, to ensure that it could never be completed. There is, or was at the time of Hughes’s writing, an official architect in charge of continuing the building. They’ve completed the Facade of the Passion, and it’s truly awful. It is hard to see anything Catholic in it — but then again, that is true of so many of the bare ruined Catholic churches of the postwar era. I bring up Catholic churches, even though there are plenty of equally ugly Protestant churches, only because unlike most of latter-day Protestantism, Catholicism still preserves in its theology an intact symbolic system.) Hughes’s devastating judgment:
It could have been done by Mormons, not Catholics. Subirachs is the official artist of the Sagrada Familia, and the results of his long labors, which adorn the portal of the growing Facade of the Passion and will in time proliferate over other parts of the building, must be seen to be believed. … Subirach’s work, from its faceless Christ to its ludicrous Darth Vader centurions — copied, of course, from the chimneys on the Casa Mila — is the most blatant mass of half-digested modernist cliches to be plunked on a notable building within living memory. It is sincere in the way that only the worst art can be: which is to say, utterly so. Art historians of the future will point to it, no doubt, as the precise moment when the public religious art of Catholic Europe died for want of anything better to do, almost exactly two thousand years after it began.
It is sincere in the way that only the worst art can be: which is to say, utterly so. Ouch. But true.