I’m standing staring at a tortoise that represents the land. It’s squished by, or holding up, a column. The column’s symmetrical partner is held up by a turtle representing the sea.
Now, I’m not very good at understanding Christianity, and much of my knowledge of Catholicism comes from reading historical fiction (the Borgia books by Kate Quinn or the Tudor books by Philippa Gregory) or that one time I went to a Catholic mass and got told off for crossing my legs. So when I looked at the ‘minor basilica’ (it’s not a cathedral because no bishop sits there) and I saw a Christmas tree, I wondered why.
I consulted Wikipedia on my phone and a friend consulted a guidebook.
Turns out, the whole scene at that wall of the fancy church is the story of the Nativity and Jesus’ early life, tortoise and turtle included. There are babies being slaughtered, shepherds with their lambs, some rich men and a cow and a horse looking surprised to see a newborn baby. To the side are scenes of Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt on a donkey, the precocious child Jesus lecturing the priests on how to be good, and a young man practising his carpentry skills.
My strongest memories of learning and writing about the Christmas story are from primary school. First, there was the day that I was ill from school and my three best friends all volunteered to be wise men. I ended up as a star. Second, the teacher spent the first ten minutes of the lesson talking about angles instead of angels and saying how we were all certain to spell it wrong, so much so that when I finally came to describe dear Gabriel I was convinced that my spelling ‘angel’ must be wrong that I went through my work and carefully changed my angels to angles.
The same teacher had criticized my work on the turnip story four years earlier. I’m not bitter much.
Having seemingly missed out on the real religious meaning behind Christmas, I went on to study the Victorians, who I discovered introduced the idea of the Christmas tree to England. This is also apparently wrong, as according to Wikipedia Victoria already had Christmas trees as a child. The tradition it seems did however come from Germany which since the royal family were German makes sense.
In any case, for Gaudi, who took over designing the church in 1883, to have thought to put a Christmas tree on the facade seems to me forward thinking. And yet, maybe this is because it isn’t quite a Christmas tree. According to the Sagrada Familia website:
The cypress, a long-lived evergreen associated with hallowed ground since ancient times, symbolizes the eternal love of Christ. In Catalonia, the cypress is planted as a sign of welcome in local farmhouses.
I want to know if in Catalonia they really do plant trees inside farmhouses, or they plant them by farmhouses, or what they mean is at Christmastime they have a Christmas tree.
I don’t yet feel enlightened.
On Tuesday afternoon, after catching the train in from the mountain village where I live, I found myself staring up at the Sagrada Familia. Back when I was seventeen I came to Barcelona on a school trip. At that time I know my impression was that after the beauty of Parc Guell, the supposedly impressive church was ugly.
I was there with some of the other art students in school and two teachers, one of whom I swiftly concluded was a liability. I can’t remember who the other teacher was, but I remember her being very nice and wheeling me though Barcelona airport in a wheelchair when my leg made an objection to holding me upright. I remember liking her because she was calm and stayed still long enough without talking that you could ask questions. The other teacher I thought I liked, she was energetic and unlike many of the other worn down teachers at the school she talked about doing things.
But we took on Barcelona like each of us had eaten a packet of Jelly Babies. We saw museums and galleries that I only remember standing outside waiting for. It felt like as soon as I’d settled in a place we were being dragged out. Go, make sketches, but do them so fast that you don’t have time to look at anything. We passed by the Olympic stadium and I wondered what the point was as we loitered around waiting for instruction. I managed to lose the teacher for long enough in the Picasso museum to actually appreciate the art, but at the Sagrada Familia all I remember was a lot of arm waving and frustrated voices.
Since 2008, the builders have been busy at work. The basilica has been enclosed, an organ installed, a pope consecrated the church (whatever that means) and they’ve begun having services there. From my memory, I figured I’d only seen it from the outside as we’d walked past and paused for photos. Yet, I recognised the museum part of the building beneath the main hall (I’m sure there’s a more precise name), where there are maquettes, architectural drawings and super clever inverted models made of string and small weights which map the tension distribution so the architects could get the forces on the building right before computers.
This time I made sure not to rush. Someone kindly began playing the organ as I meditated in one of the ‘chapel’ areas, and when we finally ventured down into the crypt, a woman was giving some sort of service.
Part of the difficulty I have with warming to God’s houses, is my huge religious blind spot. I struggled when I was eight years old with the idea that for the cub scout promise you had to believe in something (… to do my duty to God and the Queen). Having never had a god, I struggle with the concept. Plus, the religious ideas and practices of big organisations aren’t explained easily with logic that’s accessible for a non-believer with a scientific education. They come with a huge number of fancy words and hidden meanings that I’ll never understand because I can’t see the point.
This led to a minor amount of amusement with my Catholic German friend when she asked me to explain some of the English words on the plaques and labels.
“I’ve got no idea,” I said after staring at the word ‘liturgy’ for a few moments, knowing I’d come across the word before. I looked behind me at the wardrobes behind the glass wall and then back at the description. “I think it’s trying to say this is the wardrobe they keep the clothes for special occasions.”
There are rituals and traditions and rights and wrongs and angels and saints and many other things that I can’t differentiate from the general guidance to ‘be kind; play nice’. I’ve got no idea if Catholics believe in dragons or not, because if they don’t what’s Sant Jordi (Saint George) really done? If we don’t believe in dragons then how can we believe in a dragon slayer?
Religion gives you a way to answer the question ‘How does Sally know she’s dead?’ without dealing with the more horrific truth that Sally no longer is. She probably didn’t know she was alive either.
Sally was a hamster.
As a motivator for work God just doesn’t click with me, but the Sagrada Familia is also the realisation of a great ambition and to me it’s a reminder that we need to have great ambitions. I might not be able to relate to God, but I do like that it’s different. Really different. I also like that the Sagrada Familia is paid for by the people who visit it and use it rather than by the richness of the Vatican or some other great wealthy donor and, for the artistic value of the building, I’m happy to have contributed my 15 euros.
It’s an impressive piece of art, and art I can relate to.
I decided I like Gaudi’s little saying that, “my client is not in a hurry.” I like the idea of doing a thorough job. I like the details in the doors. I love the colour and the contrasts. I like the shapes, the fact that it’s a merging of geometry and art with its hyperboloid structures, twisting curves and the way the columns change as they go upwards.
There’s a chameleon hiding by a door.
When I came to Barcelona the first time, on that crazy school trip, I was in a different state of mind. I was being told where to look and what to do. At the Sagrada Familia I recall being agitated by my lack of control of the situation. We moved so fast, covered so many things that we missed out on actually really looking at anything. Nowadays, I follow my own curiosity. I went to Barcelona for the sole purpose of visiting the Sagrada Familia and looking at it. I’d booked the tickets, knew what time we needed to be there. I knew what bus I needed to get, and which stop to hop off the train at. I wasn’t rushed or exhausted.
Art takes time to understand and the Sagrada Familia to me is some highly splendid art.