Gaudí Begins Barcelona’s Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família

Noted architect Antoni Gaudí began work on an immense church in Barcelona. His plans for the church evolved to incorporate Gaudí’s distinctively Catalan modern aesthetic, making it a landmark work in the region. The project remains unfinished, but even in its unfinished state it has become a symbol of the vibrant culture of Barcelona.

Summary of Event

The Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família (Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) was conceived by a devout if eccentric bookseller, José María Bocabella Verdaguer, and a Roman Catholic priest of the Mercedarian order, José María Rodríguez. As envisioned by Bocabella, the church would be dedicated to the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus; to Joseph again, in his role as the patron saint of workers; and to the expiation of the sins of Bocabella’s Bocabella Verdaguer, José María own generation. In order to raise money for the project, Bocabella founded a group known as the Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of Devotees of Saint Joseph) in 1866. By 1881, the association was able to purchase a site in the Gracia suburb of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, Spain. Spain;Barcelona
Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família
Gaudí, Antonio
Architecture;Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família
Villar y Lozano, Francisco de Paula del
[kw]Gaudí Begins Barcelona’s Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família (Nov. 3, 1883)
[kw]Begins Barcelona’s Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família, Gaudí (Nov. 3, 1883)
[kw]Barcelona’s Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família, Gaudí Begins (Nov. 3, 1883)
[kw]Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família, Gaudí Begins Barcelona’s (Nov. 3, 1883)
Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família
Gaudí, Antonio
Architecture;Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família
Villar y Lozano, Francisco de Paula del
[g]Spain;Nov. 3, 1883: Gaudí Begins Barcelona’s Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família[5330]
[c]Architecture;Nov. 3, 1883: Gaudí Begins Barcelona’s Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família[5330]
[c]Religion and theology;Nov. 3, 1883: Gaudí Begins Barcelona’s Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família[5330]
Rubió i Bellver, Joan
Bocabella Verdaguer, José María
Rodríguez, José María

Bocabella apparently hoped that the temple would resemble the thirteenth century Italian shrine of Loreto, to which the bookseller had made a pilgrimage. Plans for a neo-Gothic structure were instead developed in 1882 by diocese architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, and the temple’s cornerstone was laid on March 19 of that year—Saint Joseph’s Day. In November of 1883, however, a dispute between Villar and the church council, or junta, overseeing the project, led to Villar’s replacement with a colleague and former student, thirty-one-year-old Antonio Gaudí.

Gaudí had been born in 1852 in the nearby Catalonian city of Reus and was already a noted member of the loosely knit movement known as Renaixança (renaissance). Although part of Spain, the region of Catalonia enjoys its own language and culture, and Renaixança was viewed by its adherents as a rebirth of the region’s distinctive political, artistic, and linguistic character. A later Catalonian architectural movement known as modernismo, in vogue from 1885 to 1905, combined the aspirations of Renaixança with many aspects of the Art Nouveau style then popular throughout Europe.

In Gaudí, the church authorities had chosen a worthy architect, but they could not have imagined the convoluted course that the project was to follow. Gaudí began actual work on the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família on November 3, 1883, and was appointed official director of works for the project on March 28, 1884. Because workers and their families lived in the area in which the temple was to be built, and because they contributed faithfully to its construction, Gaudí called it the “Cathedral of the Poor.” He and Bocabella shared a utopian vision of a spiritual community of craftsmen taking up residence in the neighborhood surrounding the structure.

Like other modernista architects, Gaudí drew on a variety of styles indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula, including Catalan and Moorish elements. His highly individual projects were strikingly sinuous and ornate, but although he had requested permission to abandon Villar’s design on March 3, 1884, Gaudí seemed reluctant at first to make many changes. Work on the crypt of the church had begun in 1882, shortly before Gaudí’s involvement, and the young architect chose to complete the structure in conventional terms. The first mass was celebrated in the crypt on St. Joseph’s Day, 1885, and the chamber was finally vaulted in 1887. As time passed, however, Gaudí drew more and more upon an organic ideal far removed from Villar’s original plan. At the same time, the projected structure grew larger and far more complex.

It is difficult to determine exactly when Gaudí’s change of heart took place, since many of his papers and models were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) . A drawing apparently made during the late nineteenth century by his assistant Joan Rubió i Bellver Rubió i Bellver, Joan shows the church largely as it has been developed since. In place of Villar’s plain and unimaginative design is a massive assemblage of gabled roofs and slender towers (four of them campaniles, or bell towers) whose appearance has been compared to the stalagmites of a cave and to gargantuan cone shells. As completed in the twentieth century, the towers are capped with fantastic Sculpture;Spanish sculptures and inlaid with materials such as tile and Venetian glass. Words sacred to Christianity such as “Excelsis” and “Hosanna” are spelled out in mosaics on the campaniles.

Gaudí gave the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família three enormous facades: the Nativity Facade, facing east; the Passion Facade, facing west; and the main, or Glory Facade, facing south. Of these, only the Nativity Facade (1893-1929) was even begun during the architect’s lifetime. Its surface is heavily sculpted and roughly worked in a manner that recalls a cave or grotto, and it includes some one hundred varieties each of animals and plants in its details. Yet the facade also makes room for a variety of conventional statuary and symbols celebrating the birth and life of Christ. The overall effect of the immense structure is routinely described as surreal, even hallucinatory.

As the project progressed, the junta continued to raise funds, but the final decade of the nineteenth century was to prove especially difficult for the administration of the project. On April 22, 1892, José María Bocabella Verdaguer, the bookseller who had conceived the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família and who had become president of the junta, died. The junta presidency was then passed to his son-in-law, Manuel de Dalmases y de Riba, but when Dalmases himself died in 1893, his widow took control. She was destined to die the same year. The bishop of Barcelona assumed administrative control of the project in 1895.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família existed as only a shell—and a partial one at that. The crypt and a single chapel of a projected seven, the Rosario, had been completed, and only parts of the Nativity Facade and the exterior wall of the cloister had been erected.


The Templo Expiatorio de al Sagrada Família embodies several seemingly contradictory trends in the history of Spain and particularly of Barcelona. Although the church’s construction began in an era of accelerating commercialization and industrialization, Bocabella and Gaudí himself regarded it as a literal expiation of the moral failings that these socioeconomic changes entailed. Despite the extremely conservative religious beliefs of the pair, the style of their church and many of the techniques involved in its construction were distinctly modern.

Work on the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Família occupied Gaudí off and on for most of his career. He completed numerous important projects after beginning work on the church—among them the Casa Milá and the Park Güell, both in Barcelona—but the church itself was unfinished at the time of his death in 1926. Although subsequent construction, including that of the Passion Facade (1954-1977), followed Gaudí’s plans closely, the church remained unfinished at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Despite its incomplete state, however, the church has solidified Gaudí’s international reputation, which was in decline at the time of his death. The structure has emerged as the signature landmark of Barcelona and continues to represent Catalonia’s cultural, spiritual, and nationalistic aspirations.

Further Reading

  • Bury, Mark. Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Família: Antoni Gaudí. London: Phaidon, 1993. Oversize volume illustrated with numerous plans and photographs. Chronology, bibliography.
  • Crippa, Maria Antonietta. Antoni Gaudí, 1852-1926: From Nature to Architecture. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2004. A compact, profusely illustrated survey. Maps, bibliography.
  • Hughes, Robert. Barcelona. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Treats Gaudí, his body of work, and the Sagrada Família as elements of Barcelona’s history. Illustrations, extensive bibliography.
  • Lahuerta, Juan José. Antoni Gaudí, 1852-1926: Architecture, Ideology, and Politics. London: Phaidon, 2004. Extended consideration of Gaudí’s oeuvre emphasizing its social, political, and philosophical context.
  • Mackay, David. Modern Architecture in Barcelona, 1854-1939. New York: Rizzoli, 1989. A survey placing Gaudí and other modernista figures within the wider context of Barcelona’s modern architectural development. Plans, numerous photographs.
  • Solà-Morales, Ignasi de. Gaudí. New York: Rizzoli, 1984. Includes plans and photographs, some archival, including many of the Sagrada Família.
  • Van Hensbergen, Gijs. Gaudí. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. The standard life of the architect in English. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, chronology.
  • Zerbst, Rainer. Gaudí, 1852-1926: Antoni Gaudí i Cornet—A Life Devoted to Architecture. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 1988. Sumptuous survey of the architect’s work. Numerous photographs, maps, plans, chronology, short bibliography.

British Houses of Parliament Are Rebuilt

Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument

World’s First Skyscraper Is Built

Eiffel Tower Is Dedicated