Antoni Gaudi, the architect of the invisible

Who was Gaudi (1852-1926), the creator of the Sagrada Familia, the giant and futuristic basilica of Barcelona? Author of “Antoni Gaudi, the architect of God” (Artège), Patrick Sbalchiero presents this mystical visionary and genius builder, virtuoso of materials and curves, who put all the resources of his art to reveal the invisible.

Outwardly, the life of Antoni Gaudi has nothing of an odyssey. Born in 1852, the child, born into a “coppersmith dynasty”, almost never left his dear Catalonia where he grew up, marveling at the countryside landscapes, dazzled by the light of the Mediterranean. The Catalan soil has kneaded his being. Although famous during his lifetime, Gaudi was neither a “hero” nor the leader of a school. He is an adventurer of God, for whom life and work are intimately linked to faith to the point of confusion.

Loyalty is his first quality. The father of the Sagrada Familia remained loyal to his geographical, cultural and family roots, to the point that some thought they saw in him a narrow-minded nationalist refusing to use a language other than Catalan. It’s going quickly. His choice to speak publicly only in Catalan is never intended to cause any ostracism. Antoni knows the sometimes conflicting links between Catalonia and Castile. He also knows the value of the culture of the people from which he comes, and whose origins go back to those of Christianity and even beyond. He measures the part that his country has taken in European history. He remembers it so well that he wants to be its artistic and spiritual representative, thanks to an architecture that will play its part in the evangelization of modernity. But this craftsman of the invisible never arbitrarily distinguishes humanity. Comrades, friends, colleagues, patrons, but also adversaries and detractors, all participate, in his eyes, to varying degrees, in the work of God.

Sagrada Familia


He flees honors and distinctions

This fidelity obviously concerns his private and professional relationships: fidelity to the artistic principles which are his, fidelity to his masters, to his faith, to the Church… For him, God can do anything, including the improbable. It is certain that his work, far from being the result of his natural abilities, is a gift from God beyond his humanity, so weakened even in his crippled body of rheumatism. To pursue his work, come what may, is to follow Christ, towards whom his whole being is stretched.

Its architecture shows what the word of God says to the heart, the presence here below of eternity clothed in human finitude.

Moreover, with him, private life and public action, profane and sacred, are one. His daily life is regulated, regular, rhythmic like that of the monks: working time and rest time defined, frugal diet, regular prayer. Gaudi knows that human weakness hinders authentic creation. Art according to Gaudi is a flow of grace. His work is him, with his humanity, fragile and light, but also with his permanent availability to transcendence. She reveals the truth of her faith as she reveals that of her people for whom the brilliant architect works by making her, not an option or a superfluity, but the heart of a culture, in the image of the gospel. , where Christ radiates the highest values ​​in a particular human community at a particular time. Its architecture shows what the word of God says to the heart, the presence here below of eternity clothed in human finitude. Gaudi did not take religious vows but his distanced relationship to the material order made him a spiritual being. He flees honors and distinctions. When his contemporaries praise his work, he asks them to look to God, the only true creator according to him, the source of all beauty. This man invented a form of contemplative life, not so much by the congruence of his days as by the religious spirit that marks each of his tasks. Art, the footstool of grace.

Interior of the Sagrada Familia.

Humility is his second virtue. He died as he lived, a modest child. He pushes this virtue to the point of refusing to be photographed, arousing various reactions, sometimes critical. A personality celebrated in his early days, Gaudi gradually withdraws, not by fleeing society but by keeping a distance that allows him to push back his excesses: will to power, selfishness, unhindered enjoyment, etc.

A man of his time

Without ever shouting down the modernity of which he became one of the masters! Gaudi is a man of his time. Better still, he in no way denies the expressions of the past — he masters them all: Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine period — but he makes them his own, updates them and transcends them in a creation open to the future. Likewise, he abhors not the scientific progress of the 19th century, which he witnessed in Barcelona, ​​but the harmful effects of the latter: impoverishment, extension of atheistic ideologies, social unrest, unbridled speculation… Gaudi was labeled “reactionary”. . It is bad to know him. He never legitimizes a return to a fantasized golden age. Gaudi is the non-acceptance of tabula rasa. Wanting to reinvent everything while ignoring history seems to him a big mistake. He considers his predecessors not as competitors or obsolete subjects, but as so many major steps that must be known to overcome them. Without a root, the plant dies. In his head, artistic creation is not born out of nothing; it takes shape through and from the forms of the past. Artists who disregard their predecessors annoy Gaudi because he sees in them the (sterile) result of the theory of art for art’s sake. Through his buildings, Gaudi shouts to the world that if everything is allowed, and if everything has equal value, the worst is yet to come. And what is worse is the confinement of man within himself, far from his origins and his fellow men, trapped in his illusions. By nicknaming him “father”, the workers on his construction sites were not mistaken. Gaudi, servant of beauty which is the other name of love.

Detail of the Nativity facade (Sagrada Familia).

Materials and curves

Antoni Gaudi remains a mystery. Born at a turning point in European history, marked by the material development of our societies, in which the idea of ​​progress occupies a large place, it prolongs these forms of the past by drawing from them the best of what they had and by rejecting what seems to him useless or obsolete. He puts all the resources of architecture at the service of his creation which is the visible aspect of his faith. To make him an isolated “original” would be to reduce the depth and breadth of his work. Original, it is neither by aesthetic principle nor by intellectual presupposition. He becomes so by dint of observation, by making use of the potentialities of nature, such as those curves, so characteristic of his genius, to the detriment of straight lines, which according to him are absent from creation. Gaudi’s work and naturalism on the one hand, and impressionism on the other, both contemporary, share a taste for observation, experimentation with reality and its methodical description. But the architect is neither a scientist in the sense commonly given to this word nor an impressionist. Or, rather, he is both in his own way. His research does not disqualify the imagination. They commit him to the service of grace. Gaudi exceeds the order of the sensitive, signature of God here below.

Far from aesthetic research and superficial compromises, Gaudi’s art, exuberant and demanding, aims at the truth of reality, not the physico-chemical reality of the world, but the truth of the Gospel, the presence of Christ in our condition. Can art say this ineffable? Gaudi answers: if we entrust to materials the forms capable of revealing the invisible, then, yes, art is able to satisfy this quest. Like Fra Angelico, the “painter of angels” half a millennium earlier, Gaudi inscribes in matter the most unlikely scenario that could be, the story between God and humanity, which tradition calls holy.

sagrada familia
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Antoni Gaudi, the architect of the invisible

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