Sunday, September 18th, 2011
Sagrada Família via Domus.
Training his agile thoughts volatile as air,
He’s civilized the world with words and wit and law…
Distinguished in his city when law abiding, pious,
But when he promulgates unsavory ambition, citiless and lost.
And then I will not share my hearth with him.
I want no parcel of his thoughts. – Sophocles, Antigone
Without a doubt the highlight of my trip to Barcelona a couple years ago was touring the work in progress that is Sagrada Família, the final masterwork of architect
Sagrada Família has been entirely funded by donations (today mostly in the form of admission charges to tourists, I believe). It was originally projected to potentially take some hundreds of years to complete. However, with modern design and fabrication techniques, the current projected completion date is 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. Though still unfinished, the church was consecrated on November 7, 2010.
Sagrada Família via Domus.
Back in March Domus magazine published a fantastic essay on Sagrada Família called “In-Finite Architectures” by Oscar Tusquets Blanca. Blanca was very forthright in admitting his own change of heart towards the building over time.
At the start of 2002, to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect Antoni Gaudí, Domus asked me to write an article on the controversial issue of the continuation of construction work on the Sagrada Família Church. Published in May of that year, my article explained that, in the early 1960s, while I was still at university, I had been one of the instigators of a manifesto against the continuation of the church, which received the unconditional support of all the intelligentsia of the day—from Bruno Zevi to Giulio Carlo Argan, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier…..How could we have been so wrong? This wonder would not exist if people had listened to us 50 years ago. It would have remained a ruin or it would have been finished by an in-vogue architect of the time….I do not know whether it is the finest work of the last century but it will certainly be the greatest religious building of the last three.
Sagrada Família photo by The Urbanophile.
While one can never attribute ultimately pure motives to anything or anyone, clearly the Christian religion was a major inspiration for Gaudí. It’s difficult to imagine such a project even being conceived, much less executed, absent the reality of faith.
Which immediately raises another question. We sense in our gut as we tour this place that it is a product of another era, one closer perhaps to that age which produced the medieval cathedrals than our own, no matter what the calendar might say. Will there ever be another buildings like this created again? Perhaps there will be, but the mere fact that such a question can be asked in all seriousness shows the change in our world.
Angkor Wat (12th century). Originally a Hindu but now Buddhist temple currently located in Cambodia that is the world’s largest religious building.
Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers of 1610)
In ages past it almost went without saying that the greatest artistic works of humanity were in large part inspired by the religious impulse. Certainly not all artworks were so-inspired, and certainly art of a religious nature might also be inspired in part by temporal matters such as advancing the career of the artist or symbolizing the earthly power of the king or church. Nevertheless, the power of faith was often very real in the life of the artist – Monteverdi became a priest and Bach was a devout Lutheran – and the spiritual often informed the scope, theme, content, form, etc of the work not just for the artist, but for the audience.
The Parthenon (5th century BC). Image via Wikipedia
JS Bach, Mass in B Minor (1749)
Today it is quite a different story. Even among those who profess passionate religious faith, that faith no longer seems capable of inspiring the greatest creative endeavors of the human spirit. Indeed, listen to prominent Evangelical Christian leaders and they practically brag about how little money they spend on facilities. I’ve yet to see a mega-church structure that in any way impresses architecturally. Syrupy contemporary Christian music often can’t even match the simple profundity of the hymns, much less approach the great masses and other religious works of serious creators past. Evangelical Christianity is not exactly noted for its production of high art.
The rationale is frequently that of accessibility and investing in mission versus grandiose edifices. Yet in the process we have a movement that has become unmoored from the transcendent and the overwhelming glory of God. This is perhaps faith that can inspire good works, but not great ones.
The more passionate strains of Islam fare no better. Though the discouragement of representational art in Islam closed off some fields of creative endeavor, Islam produced some of the most striking works of architecture in human history, as well as many fantastic non-representational works. Yet today I’m unaware of any powerful artistic movements in fervent Islam to match its religious passion.
Süleymaniye Mosque (1558), Istanbul
Interestingly, non-religious art has fared not much better. I’m generally a contemporary art skeptic. Even at its best, this work tends to be idiosyncratic and highly context specific (anchoring it to a particular time and place rather than to the universal). Too often in degenerates into cheap political statements and pretentiousness. How many contemporary art works do many of us really believe represent the highest and greatest achievements of which humanity is capable? How many do we really think will be marveled at hundreds or thousands of years from now, except perhaps as examples of our age? As for too much contemporary serious music, don’t get me started.
Lest I sound too much like a curmudgeon, architecture has fared perhaps a bit better. I suspect many of our buildings will stand the test of time. But even here we see self-indulgence and an excessive fascination with novelty. Yet above all what these buildings lack is any sense of transcendent purpose.
New York City
It’s not surprising to me to see what we so-often get today when motivated by purely humanistic concerns, namely the tall building. The author of Genesis seemed to get that in his gut when relating the story of the Tower of Babel. Yet despite their impressiveness, these buildings generally lack any larger spiritual purpose.
We seem to have forgotten the creation of sacred space as an essential function of the city. Our cities themselves no longer satisfy the longing of the human spirit for transcendence, to be part of a cosmic order greater than ourselves, to inspire extravagant gestures that seem to defy the strictures of our existence. Today, we seem satisfied with simple commercial success and the basics of production and consumption.
Nietzsche mourned when he said that God was dead, not because he believed in God, but because he understood what the passing of God meant to our modern world. With the death of God, something in the human spirit perished along with Him, even for those who still actually believe.
As for the question of whether we will ever produce another great artistic statement for God, perhaps we won’t even finish the last one. As Blanca noted:
The second and certainly more serious problem is that of finding contemporary artists capable of executing the Master’s figurative designs. Gaudí wanted the facades to explain the Holy Story in pictures, the way medieval cathedrals had done. That was already a difficult demand by the start of the twentieth Century but the genius of Gaudí solved the problem on the—almost kitsch—Nativity facade with walls that fold into figures, many created from casts of real people and animals (George Segal 50 years earlier). The pitiful result of the Passion facade, commissioned to the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, shows the huge difficulty of pursuing the same course of action. The main Glory facade has yet to be built. Finding a contemporary artist anywhere in the world capable of taking on this task is the biggest challenge now faced. Figurative art is having a difficult time, that with a religious content even more so and an art that can express the Glory of the Resurrection is now extinct. Contemporary art has given us many crucifixions but no remarkable resurrection.
Related: Religion and the City