I have written often about my fascination with the Catalan architect Gaudi (second only to my respect for our own Sir Edwin Lutyens), and his masterwork the Eglisa de la Sagrada Familia, or the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, in Barcelona, but forgive me for returning to it (as I do from time to time).
Looking at it recently, I was struck by a couple of things that reminded me forcibly of another of my interests — Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. I was looking at the statuary on the Passion Portal on the South-West face, and suddenly I was looking at a Nazgul, in its “Black Rider” persona. Or so it seemed. A little more study revealed that it was a representation of the Roman centurion Longinus, who was, unlike the Nazgul, a good guy. But in visual terms, he fitted the Tolkien version perfectly.
Tradition has it that Longinus was the Roman soldier who, after the crucifixion, said “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27; 54).
But having made the mental connection with Tolkien, I was ready to find more, and there it was in the interior — the columns, which as Gaudi himself said were inspired by trees. Standing in the body of the church, and admiring the brilliant colours of the stained glass, I was surrounded by a forest of branching columns, which could have been the golden mallorn trees of Lothlorien, high in the branches of which the Galhadrim, or Sylvan Elves, built their “flets”, or tree houses. Indeed Gaudi’s columns support a roof decorated in part to represent stylised golden leaves.
Gaudi’s inspirations were geometry — conic sections, and parabolic and hyperbolic surfaces — and nature — trees, plants, flowers, leaves. Everyone who has seen even a photograph of the Sagrada Familia will surely remember the exuberant finials in the shapes of seed-pods and fruits, covered with brightly coloured ceramic mosaics.
The site is crowded with tourist facilities, souvenir shops, cheap restaurants, and of course substantial and semi-permanent structures used by the construction workers, and I felt a moment of irritation that all this activity distracted from the appreciation of the architecture. But then I reflected that if I had been able to visit the site of (say) Salisbury Cathedral during the construction phase, in the thirteenth century, I should have seen very much the same sort of thing — and they’d probably have been selling papal indulgences as well.
We have all seen the existing eight towers which have become an icon of Catalan tourist literature. The eight are to be joined by four more similar ones of the same height. But within the floor plan there are to be no fewer than six new towers, currently under construction, which will be higher again. Four are narrow, and represent the four evangelists. One is rather more substantial, and will represent the Virgin. But in the centre, dominating everything else, will be the tower representing Christ himself, topped with Gaudi’s trademark four-armed cross.
They plan to have it finished by 2030. Pray God I live to see the day.
Meantime, I’d better re-read a biography of Tolkien and see if he ever went to Barcelona.