The final scene of Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia shows a group of monks processing through the forest at dawn, with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” playing softly in the background. As they walk and pray with their candles, the trees before them begin to join together at the tops, forming what are unmistakably the arches of a natural cathedral overhead. The point is beautifully made and accessible to all: God’s genius is reflected in the created order.
I was reminded of this scene as I entered the church of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona for the first time last month. Construction on the church began in 1882, and the project has yet to reach completion. Architectural genius Antoni Gaudi was charged with the design, and modern artists are doing their best to realize his vision for the place. After months of clicking through Google image search results to satisfy my desire to see it, I finally had the opportunity to visit in person.
As expected, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place: my eye was drawn instantly upward, along the tree-like columns to the ceiling’s forest. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, projecting each of the colors of the rainbow into the church. Near the front of the church, an impressive collection of wavy, blue stained glass evoked the sea, and high up in the ceiling, the glass remained uncolored to represent the air. I stood mesmerized, taking all of it in, and yet, when the spell lifted, I was left…wanting more. Something was missing from this church, and I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until I visited the Seville Cathedral a few days later.
The cathedral in Seville is the largest cathedral, and third largest church, in the world. (St. Peter’s in Rome is not a cathedral because it is not home of the bishop’s seat, or cathedra.) Completed in one sense in 1507 at its dedication, the Seville Cathedral is continually going through small changes—pieces are restored, stained glass is maintained and updated, etc. If one can ignore the omnipresent audio guides and camera phones of tourists, one is transported through time and given a glimpse of the splendor of the medieval Church. Compared to La Sagrada Familia, the cathedral is dark, and the layout confusing. The sheer size of the place, the number of side altars, and diversity of objects is disorienting, but to the Catholic faithful, it contains multitudes.
I actually made the visit to both churches with an agnostic friend, who unsurprisingly preferred La Sagrada Familia. And why wouldn’t she? The audio guide at La Sagrada Familia introduces the church as a place of worship open to people of all creeds—it even has a large, nondenominational prayer space in the middle of the church. The tabernacle is hidden in a corner, with a few seats reserved for those who wish to pray. The explicit statements about God in the church’s interior are few, and relatively unspecific (the spectacular outer facades are a different story). Undoubtedly, La Sagrada Familia contains elements of a Christian church—a crucifix above the altar, the “Our Father” written above a door, the symbols of the four Evangelists on pillars in the central dome. But does it contain anything that is specifically Catholic? Most people can get behind the idea that God, if he exists, can be found in nature. It’s a beautiful and true point, but one innocuous enough to find its place in a Disney movie.
Compared to the dozens of side altars in the Seville Cathedral, La Sagrada Familia is minimalistic at eye-level. Everyone in the church is looking up. This is a beautiful symbol of attention being drawn to God, but that isn’t how God himself arranged the world. Instead, he came down to us. As Catholics, we have a rich heritage of saints, stories, and symbols to draw our attention to specific theological points around us, in the midst of the world. Furthermore, while La Sagrada Familia makes its points clearly and compellingly, the Seville Cathedral probably contains the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church in its art and architecture. Like the Catholic faith itself, it cannot be grasped in its entirety and detail, but continually offers more to those who wish to learn.
One clear example of this is the representation of saints in the respective churches. La Sagrada Familia does not depict the saints, but has their names etched in the stained glass, along with other holy and evocative words—pilgrimage sites, virtues, and theological terms. By contrast, the cathedral in Seville shows the saints in all of their eccentric iconography. As I walked through the aisles, I recognized my friends, the communion of saints who pray for me, each signified by a specific artistic trope. In one window, Saint Francis is depicted receiving the stigmata, which my agnostic friend thought was a bird-child shooting death rays at a monk. When I explained some saints are blessed to receive the wounds of Christ on their bodies, she was frankly no less baffled. I can’t blame her: to the uninitiated, it really is appalling. So is much of our faith—God becoming man and submitting to death, the faithful feasting on his flesh in the form of bread.
Furthermore, some historical aspects of the Seville Cathedral are embarrassing to the modern liberal observer and her sense of justice. Take, for instance, the grand tomb of Christopher Columbus, whose sarcophagus is being carried in a larger-than-life procession toward the middle of the church by four Spanish kings. Columbus was a great man who risked everything to set sail for the other side of the world. In some ways, he was also a terrible man who embodied the worst aspects of colonialism. We should not regard Columbus, and this part of Church history, uncritically—he is no saint. But he is in our Church, a part of our history that reflects the blessings of God alongside, in spite of, and through human failings. Even though La Sagrada Familia may be easier to understand and appreciate, and has less to offend, it feels somewhat sterile by comparison.
None of this is a condemnation of La Sagrada Familia, which is a piece of reverent, Christian art. There are, of course, many examples of modern architecture in Catholic churches that border on the sacrilegious. One need look no further than the cathedral in my hometown, Los Angeles, which has famously been dubbed the “yellow armadillo” and is rumored to have no right angles. In defiance of the idea that God has ordered the world and nature in some way, this cathedral seems to say that the world is left to chaotic chance, and human efforts to interpret it are fruitless. Although it contains some of the traditional Catholic symbols, the design is so ghastly that upon entering one feels immediately pressed down and inward. La Sagrada Familia, while lacking some of the richness of traditional church architecture like the Seville Cathedral, still aims to make a profound theological point, and draws us out of ourselves, and uplifts us.
If the Los Angeles cathedral feels agnostic, and La Sagrada Familia feels vaguely Christian, the Seville Cathedral alone feels authentically Catholic. From its eccentric iconography to elements of colonialism, the Seville Cathedral contains much that would alienate the modern visitor. But it really isn’t about the visitor’s experience—it’s about giving glory to God in a way that reflects the rich and strange myriad of narratives in the Church. A traditional cathedral is like a symphony: it exhibits pattern and repetition, but it is not predictable, or even symmetrical. Taken as a magnificent whole, it has an irreplaceable richness that reflects the diversity of the human family and the eclectic treasures of the Church he gave us.