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The astonishing, sometimes tragic story of Antoni Gaudí’s fantastic obsession

In his book, The Sagrada Família: The Astonishing Story of Gaudí’s Unfinished Masterpiece, Dutch art historian Gijs van Hensbergen has given us a “biography” of the great and innovative church in Barcelona.

Left: The cover of "The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudí’s Unfinished Masterpiece" by Gijs van Hensbergen (; right: West side of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain (Bernard Gagnon/WikiCommons)

Art imitates life. And for the great Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudí this idea became something of an obsession.

Designing a sculpture of the Holy Family for his colossal church, La Sagrada Família, Gaudí went looking for just the right donkey. Borrowing a scrawny burro from a local rag-picker, he tried encasing the whole animal in plaster to make a life-sized cast. In the ensuing struggle, they had to anaesthetize the donkey, and, after taking a mold of the unconscious animal, let it go unharmed. The plaster cast would serve as a model for the stone sculptures, and nearby chickens and geese would suffer similar indignities, their forms captured forever on the massive exterior of the church.

It is this obsession with imitating nature that shapes Gaudí’s huge, magnificent minor basilica in Barcelona, La Sagrada Família. The sandcastle exterior, the fantastical colors, the organically-branching columns, and the gorgeous geometry of the interior find their inspiration in the natural shapes and forms of trees, shells, and other structures fashioned by God Himself. It is an architecture based on what Gaudí called “the Great Book of Nature.”

In his book, The Sagrada Família: The Astonishing Story of Gaudí’s Unfinished Masterpiece, Dutch art historian Gijs van Hensbergen has given us a “biography” of this great and innovative church. Begun in 1882, La Sagrada Família has slowly risen over the city of Barcelona, and is projected to be finished in 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death. Conceived by a Catalonian Catholic bookseller and founder of a society devoted to St. Joseph, the church’s construction faltered right away when the main architect quit. The young Antoni Gaudí was brought in to take over the project, and the history of sacred architecture was changed forever.

For Gaudí, who worked on the church for over forty of his seventy-four years of life, the project became a labor of love, nourished by his intense faith in God. He devoted his last two decades exclusively to building La Sagrada Família, reading the Bible and going to confession daily. Popular legend even has him begging for alms in the streets in order to fund the build.

Then, Gaudí died tragically in 1926, hit by a tram on the streets of Barcelona. Suddenly, the unfinished church’s future was uncertain. But the project had already weathered some serious challenges, and would survive far worse disasters in the coming decades. Van Hensbergen writes:

Despite the almost weekly explosions of anarchist bombs in the late nineteenth century in central Barcelona, the Sagrada Família project also managed to survive the terrible fallout of the disastrous 1898 Spanish-American War, the convent and church burning of the “Tragic Week of 1909,” the horrors of the First World War, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Cold War, the war on terrorism, and the catastrophic financial meltdown of the early 2000s.

Indeed, perhaps the worst threat to the church would occur during the terrible years of the Spanish Civil War, a decade after Gaudí’s death. Under a Republican government, the Church suffered gravely. In Barcelona, anarchists finally turned their anger on the Sagrada Família; they destroyed Gaudí’s studio, with its plans, models, photographs, and correspondence. They looted and vandalized the unfinished church, destroying construction equipment, and burning some of the surrounding buildings to the ground. Van Hensbergen writes that in the subsequent years, “twelve people associated with the Sagrada Família were killed: a group that is now collectively known as the Twelve Martyrs of the Sagrada Família.” The author describes the state of the abandoned and unfinished church under the Republican persecution:

No substantial record of the wasteland that was once the Sagrada Família now exists. Once all the metal from railings, religious furniture and images had been scrapped and recycled for the armaments industry the site was left to deteriorate as a ruin for children to explore, for cats to scavenge, and the crypt below ground transformed into makeshift toilets with Gaudí’s grave defiled as a dump for used sardine cans, broken bottles and other rubbish.

It was only when the Catholic fascists, led by General Francisco Franco, conquered Barcelona that the architects, artists, and laborers—many of whom had worked alongside Gaudí himself—could pick up the pieces. Once, someone had asked Gaudí what he would do if the church were destroyed by war. His response was prophetic: “We would build it again.”

The author tells a compelling story of the growth and development of this astonishing temple to the Living God. As an art historian, he remains attentive to the groundbreaking aesthetics and engineering of La Sagrada Família, and weaves in Gaudí’s own life, as well as his other architectural projects and influences. We can forgive the author if his prose style becomes too self-consciously literary and flashy at times, since he’s writing about so extravagant an architectural masterpiece. Furthermore, the author writes from the worldview of a self-professed “lapsed Scots Presbyterian,” which occasionally clouds his vision of Catholicism. Thus for him miracles are not supernatural events pointing to the power of God, but rather “social barometers” which provide “useful data that can bear witness to the anxieties and aspirations of their age.” Yet, to his credit, van Hensbergen takes Gaudí’s Catholic faith seriously, showing how it informs his architectural craft. Only Gaudí’s devotion to God can fully explain his commitment to a project he knew would never be completed during his lifetime.

The Catholic Church continues to recognize Gaudí’s faith and his artistic contribution to the Kingdom of God. The cause of his canonization has been put before Rome, and he has already been named a “Servant of God” by the Church. In 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI consecrated La Sagrada Família, he praised it as “a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself.” The Pope also praised Gaudí’s art and faith, as well as his “life lived in dignity and absolute austerity.”

Gaudí’s faith continues to bear fruit. The author describes meeting the Japanese sculptor Esturo Sotoo, one of the artists continuing Gaudí’s work on the Sagrada Família church. He writes: “After a decade of doing battle with hammer and chisel to uncover Gaudí’s vision, Sotoo decided to take the next step. In 1991 he was baptised in the crypt of the Sagrada Família.” Working on this temple of God seems to change the people who work. As Sotoo tells van Hensbergen, the act of transforming stone and brick and metal into this church becomes God’s providential transformation of the artist: “The Sagrada Família,” he says, “is a tool for building us.”

(Editor’s note: The Sagrada Família church was incorrectly identified as a cathedral in an earlier posting of this article; it is a Basilica and Expiatory Church.)

The Sagrada Família: The Astonishing Story of Gaudí’s Unfinished Masterpiece
by Gijs van Hensbergen
Bloomsbury, 2017
Hardback, 224 pages

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About Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin 27 Articles
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and Associate Professor of English at Hillsdale College.


  1. This is a very good article. However, La Sagrada Familia is a basilica, not a cathedral! Barcelona already has a cathedral (You can look it up.) I counted the word “cathedral” eight times in the article.

  2. Sagrada Familia is an awesome testimony to beauty, goodness and truth.

    I love Gaudi’s answer: “we will just build it again.”

    What a dramatic story – I hope to see it one day – with my wife.

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