On June 7, 1926, the architect Antoni Gaudí left his workshop at the church of Sagrada Família in Barcelona to walk to the nearby church of St. Philip Neri. He was going to pray—his daily practice—when he was hit by a streetcar as he crossed the tracks on the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. No one in the crowd recognized the renowned architect—he carried no identification papers and was so shabbily dressed, untidy, and gaunt that everyone assumed he was homeless. The police took him to the hospital for charity cases. There he lingered, suffering from broken ribs and internal bleeding.
His friends tracked him down the next day, but by then it was too late. In keeping with his long-standing wish to die poor, he refused the offer to move him to a better setting. “This is where I belong,” he said. Two days later, he died. His last words were “Amen, my God, my God.”
The Basílica de la Sagrada Família—the Basilica of the Holy Family—is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited tourist destinations in Spain. Under construction since 1882 and not scheduled to be structurally complete until roughly 2026, it is nevertheless a functioning church that hosts weekly Mass and is open daily for prayer. At the same time, it is a testament to the creative genius of Antoni Gaudí, who worked on the project for forty years. Seven of his projects, in fact, have been named World Heritage sites.
Studying the “Book” of Nature. As a child, Gaudí struggled with rheumatic fever and its accompanying joint pain, and he spent considerable time recuperating in the countryside. There, immersed in the natural world, he became familiar with the nonlinear forms found in nature—spiderwebs, snail shells, tree trunks with their branching limbs, stems of flowers, blossoms, and leaves. Nature is “the Great Book, always open, that we should force ourselves to read,” he once said.
Gaudí’s charism for craftsmanship had deep roots—he came from a long line of craftsmen—and he found the shapes of nature mimicked in his family’s workshop. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all metalworkers, and the curved pipes and round shapes of the boilers and fittings of their workplace proved to be a lasting influence. Later in life he often said that the memory of those cauldrons and serpentine pipes influenced his “habit of thinking in three dimensions”—so much so that he typically didn’t use sketches or make models for his work.
A Madman or a Genius? When he was eleven, he entered a local school run by monks. He wasn’t much of a student, although he could draw well and had a strong gift for math and geometry. At sixteen, he moved seventy miles away to Barcelona where he completed his secondary education and enrolled in the Provincial School for Architecture. His mediocre academic performance continued there—he skipped classes, feeling that the college curriculum prized discipline over creativity.
In spite of his attitude toward class work, he devoured books in the library. Some professors, recognizing his talent, asked him to work with them on their projects. When the time came for him to receive his degree, however, faculty opinion was divided, and he narrowly survived the vote. When the director of the architectural school presented it to Gaudí in 1878, he said to those assembled, “I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius; only time will tell.”
Public Fame, Personal Hardship. Gaudí quickly made a name for himself, landing commissions for houses and other buildings. His style is often classified as Art Nouveau, but his work defies categories. His brilliance lay in part in his ability to capture in stone the forms he found in nature and to embellish his work—both structural and decorative—with color. He adapted the ancient mosaiclike technique known as trencadís, for example, using bits of smashed china and broken tile to enliven curved balconies and rooftops and the decorative dragons, salamanders, and other forms that were a signature of his work. His affinity for geometry coupled with his insights into the forms of the natural world—tree trunks, for example, or the bones of the human skeleton—enabled him to devise, among other things, new means for supporting heavy walls.
Construction on the Sagrada Família had only just begun when the original architect resigned, and Gaudí agreed to take over management of the project while continuing with his other commissions. He was only thirty-one, but wealthy, a bit of a dandy, fond of the opera, and supremely confident in his abilities. His life took a turn, however, when his two attempts at marriage failed. The first woman to whom he proposed turned him down because she was already engaged. The second accepted his proposal but then broke the engagement to enter the convent. By this time too, his mother and siblings had died, and his father and orphaned niece had come to live with him.
Ever Higher: the Struggle. Although a Catholic, he hadn’t been particularly religious, but now he began a slow, steady movement toward deeper conversion. He prayed and read the Bible every day, attended daily Mass, made the decision not to marry, and received regular spiritual guidance from several priests. Gaudí fasted—sometimes to excess—gave up alcohol, and became a vegetarian. Still, he never won his lifelong struggle to control his temper, and he could be plainspoken to a fault. “I have to say things exactly as they are without beating around the bush,” he said, “and of course people are annoyed.”
Shortly after the deaths of his father and niece, he moved into his workshop at the Sagrada Família. He devoted the last ten years of his life solely to his work there. The church was only one-quarter finished when Gaudí died, but the lofty treelike columns of the interior and the windows through which light pours in as if through the canopy of a forest capture the spirit of his work. “Sunshine is the best painter,” he once said. Although it is possible to appreciate Gaudí’s art apart from his faith, he saw them as inseparable—his work, he said, was a collaboration with God.
Honoring the Way of Beauty. In 2000, the Vatican swiftly approved a petition to open Gaudí’s cause for canonization—his life as an artist, man of faith, and layman caught the attention of Pope John Paul II. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI came to Barcelona and formally consecrated the church as a basilica. Paying tribute to Gaudí in his homily, Pope Benedict said that he had closed the gap between the beauty of earthly things and “God as beauty.” Gaudí did this, the pope said, “not with words but with stones, lines, planes, and points.”
“It is impossible to deny that he was an extraordinary man,” a contemporary artist said of the architect, “a real creative genius. . . . He belonged to a race of human beings from another time for whom the awareness of higher order” took precedence over material things.
This article was excerpted from Saints Who Transformed Their World by Sherry Weddell which is available from wau.org and amazon.com.