The Art and Martyrdom of the Sagrada Família, the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family

Among the precious treasures of the Church that bring about the salvation of souls, which we must recover to save our families and rebuild a Christian society, is the Sacrament of Matrimony. Is it not darkened today above all because we rarely proclaim this forgotten gem among the seven sacraments, no longer let it shine in our lives? Hope rises in considering what is probably the most improbable phenomenon of our time, the construction of the Sagrada Família, the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, right in the middle of the modern metropolis of Barcelona.

Resistance against the Sagrada Família

In view of its foundational spirit, as well as Antoni Gaudí’s personal piety to which the building of the Sagrada Família led him, it is hardly surprising that such a project should meet with determined resistance. As one of Gaudí’s students and his official biographer, architect Cèsar Martinell i Brunet (1888-1973), notes, the young Gaudí had turned away from his liberal views because of the increasingly violent anarchist movement, but without abandoning his labor ideals. What he did was to substitute true Christian charity for purely secular philanthropy (Gaudi: His Life, His Theories, His Work. Cambridge: MIT Press 1975.). He had always remained true to his early fraternal support for the honest worker. Under the influence of Catholic social teaching, Gaudí understood that the serious social conflicts of his time could not be solved by “messianic materialism.” 

In 1910, he participated in the “Social Catholic Week” organized by entrepreneur Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi (1846-1918), Gaudí’s client and patron, in the workers’ settlement Colonia Güell. Güell and Gaudí’s lifelong friendship went far beyond business relations and was founded in deep Catholic religiosity. In 1886, Gaudí began construction of the Palau Güell, the Güell family’s city palace. Gaudí’s assistant Francesc d’Assís Berenguer i Mestres (1866-1914) built the winery Bodegas Güell between 1895-1901. In 1898 Güell commissioned Gaudí to build a church for the Colònia Güell in Santa Coloma de Cervelló near Barcelona. The crypt and portico were completed. In 1900 Gaudí began the construction of Parc Güell. From 1906 to the end of 1925, he lived there in a house that since 1963 commemorates him as Casa-Museu Gaudí.

In the Setmana Tràgica, the ‘tragic week’ in the summer of 1909, when anticlerical, anarchist and libertine forces, as Pius IX named them in Quanta cura, destroyed churches and monasteries of Barcelona, ecclesiastical schools and asylums, the Sagrada Família is still largely spared, as if by a miracle. During the Spanish Civil War, however, the Federación Anarquista Ibérica attacks the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family head-on. Within hours, more than fifty years of work went up in smoke on July 20, 1936, and Gaudí’s drawings, correspondence, and archives fell victim to the flames. Thousands of hours of work, during which Gaudí had developed his modular structure for the Sagrada Família, were destroyed. In the sculpture and model studios, the anarchists smashed everything they could find, including the intricate models and fragile 3D plaster details.

Aerial photo of the Sagrada Familia by Walter Mittelholzer (1930) / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Among the little that was saved were the blueprints of the Sagrada Família. Gaudí’s student Francesc de Paula Quintana i Vidal (1892-1966) snuck into the ruins after dark, risking his life, and salvaged what he could. On this basis, Quintana was able to reconstruct Gaudí’s 3D models starting in 1944. Today, the model workshop is still the constructive heart of the Sagrada Família, where Gaudí’s models are reconstructed from many thousands of fragments with the help of computers.

The 12 Martyrs of the Sagrada Família

Finally, the anarchists desecrated the tombs in the crypt. The stone lid of Gaudí’s tomb was broken and his embalmed body was dragged out. They also destroyed the family tomb of the Bocabellas and carried the bodies in an eerie parade through the streets. On August 19, 1936, the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) wrote on a postcard to his friend Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who he knew hated Gaudí’s work: “In Barcelona the other day, a friend of mine saw Mr. Antoni Gaudí crossing Via Laietana in the afternoon. […] He was dragged with a rope around his neck and looked quite bad, which was to be expected in his condition, since he had just been exhumed. He aged quite a bit, although he was embalmed after all.” As early as 1900, Picasso had written to a friend to “send Gaudí and the Sagrada Família to hell.” English writer George Orwell (1903-1950), a participant in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, described the Sagrada Família as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world,” adding that “the anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.”

Orwell was closer to the truth than he knew. For the anarchists did indeed return to blow up the Christmas façade. Gaudí’s closest collaborator, Sugrañes, risked his life and persuaded the anarchists to desist. A few days later, the first of the “12 Martyrs of the Sagrada Família” lost his life. The priest Gil Parés i Vilasau (1880-1936), chaplain of the Sagrada Família, who ten years earlier brought the last sacraments to the dying Gaudí, was murdered by seven bullets to the head. Since 2011, he too is buried in the crypt. Shortly after, two teachers at the Sagrada Família school, fathers of families, were killed, as was the chaplain’s brother. He was followed by the vicar general of Barcelona, because he presided over the Sagrada Família promotion association. Formative for Gaudí was his confessor and spiritual director, Oratorian Father Agustí Mas i Folch (1866-1937). In the Oratory, he helped to awaken Gaudí’s love for liturgy and Gregorian chant. After his release from the anarchist torture prison of Sant Elies, Mas was shot in the back of the head and thrown into a ditch. The beatification process has been opened for the twelve martyrs of the Sagrada Família as well.

In the 1950s, a petition tried to halt the construction. Besides others, the famous architects Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969) signed, even the young Subirachs, who in his old age designed the Passion facade. But the project failed. In the 1990s, a fierce dispute erupted again. A group of modern architects and urban planners around the architect Oriol Bohigas i Guardiola (b. 1925) took the view that further construction on the Sagrada Família was to be forbidden. Even as late as 2008, a group of 400 architects, actors, directors, and gallery owners demanded that construction be halted. The opponents of Gaudí and his art nevertheless remain unsuccessful in their attempt to have the construction of a church financed purely by donations banned.

Preliminary Culmination and Hope

On Sunday, November 7, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI (*1927) consecrated the main altar of the Sagrada Família, a massive block of pink stone, with fragrant chrism and elevated the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family to the rank of Papal Basilica Minor. Particularly moving is the papal blessing received by Jordi Bonet i Armengol (*1925), the oldest architect of a line that goes back in unbroken succession to Gaudí himself.

This was the most important day in the history of the Sagrada Família since the laying of the foundation stone on the Feast of St. Joseph in 1882. Pope Benedict turns the reference to St. Joseph into a personal one: “My joy at being able to preside over this celebration became even greater when I learned that this sacred building was closely linked to the figure of St. Joseph from the very beginning. I was particularly moved by the certainty with which Gaudí, in the face of the countless difficulties he had to overcome, exclaimed with confidence in divine providence: ‘St. Joseph will complete the church.’ The fact that it is now consecrated by a Pope whose baptismal name is Joseph is therefore not without significance.”

For Benedict XVI, the consecration of the altar is the culmination of an important narrative. “This event is also, in a certain way, the culmination and the result of a history of the Catalan region,” he said in his sermon, “that, especially since the end of the 19th century, has produced a multitude of saints and founders of religious orders, martyrs and Christian writers: history of sanctity, artistic and poetic creation born of faith.” The impact of the Sagrada Família is not limited to Catalonia:

“What does it mean to consecrate this church? In the midst of the world, in the face of God and man, in a humble and joyful act of faith, we have built an immense edifice, fruit of nature and immense effort of human intelligence, the builder of this work of art. […] In this sacred space Gaudí wanted to summarize what he received from the three great books from which he drew nourishment as a man, as a believer and as an architect: the Book of Nature, the Book of Scripture and the Book of the Liturgy. In this way, he united the reality of the world and the history of salvation as it is told to us through the Bible and made present in the liturgy. He took stones, trees, and human life into the sacred building to direct all creation toward divine praise, but at the same time he brought out the retable to make people see the mystery of God.”

In conclusion, when we question the architecture of the Sagrada Família for its spiritual value, we must start from what a church is supposed to be. In it, Jesus Christ, through the Sacred Liturgy, continues his priestly work to atone for sins, to restore the disturbed order, and to lead men to the origin and ultimate goal of all creatures. For Pius XII (1876-1958), everything that applies to church music can also be applied to church architecture and sculpture. New forms of art should “not be despised and rejected wholesale and out of preconceived opinion.” For if they “wisely avoid both a mere imitation of nature and an exaggerated ‘symbolism’” and “take more account of the needs of the Christian community than of the particular conception and personal attitude of the artists, then the way must necessarily be open to this modern art for duly reverent service to the house of God and in the sacred acts (Mediator Dei et hominum, 1947).”

The Sagrada Família seems to fulfill demands of the Pastor Angelicus in an exemplary way, so that from it can emanate truly spiritually effective forces for the renewal of church life, families and society as a whole.

Editor’s note: This article is the final part in our special series, A Symbol of Rediscovered Faith: The Expiatory Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona. You can click here to see the full series.

image: VladyslaV_Portfolio /

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Dorothea and Wolfgang Koch write regularly for Catholic magazines in Germany. They are particularly interested in the idea of Christian democracy and the devotion to Our Lady that has shaped post-war Western Germany in the Adenauer Era. Their book Konrad Adenauer: The Catholic and His Europe is popular among German Catholics. Wolfgang Koch, a physicist, is Chief Scientist at one of the Fraunhofer Institutes and a professor of computer science at the University of Bonn. Their five children are now grown up, and Dorothea Koch, a chemist, works to spread knowledge about Konrad Adenauer from his home in Rhöndorf, a German National Historical Site.

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