Once I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a large book sitting on a table. Its cover was a detail photograph of a roof corner. I was caught immediately, like love at first sight. A detail of a roof was all it took to make me a life-long fan of Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, the genius-artist-ascetic whose vision lies behind the last truly great building project of modern times, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. La Sagrada, Gaudí’s crowning work, and the last of this man who slowly became more and more determined to be only God’s, is great because he saw a vision of the cult-center of Barcelona’s true soul: that twin-love of their natural land and the Word who made it. He submitted his great gifts to the truth that all truly great architecture—indeed, all great art—draws our souls back to their source, to each other, to the universal and common truths, to God.
Indeed, Gaudí’s work, as exemplified in La Sagrada, is a plastic (as in the sense of the “plastic arts” such as architecture and sculpture) manifestation of the land and natural beauty that surrounds Barcelona, an ordered version of nature which is again moved, in concert, to its highest end, that of revealing the beauty, truth, and order of God. In other words, it is art imitating and re-ordering nature, and becoming itself a revelation of God. Gaudí’s work helps human beings to see God poetically through nature, through art, again: to know, to receive in impressions upon the soul His fecundity, His wild goodness, His simple order within complexity, His extravagance of love.
Most importantly, La Sagrada brings nature again clearly under the ends to which she was originally created: as a Christian liturgy of sacrifice, love, fecundity, order, and beauty.
La Sagrada Familia, or just “Sagrada” as it is affectionately called, rises like the Montserrat mountains near Barcelona: not just figuratively “rising” but rising, like the great dolomite-shaped, exposed bones of the mountain; the cathedral looks like the mountain; it is as if a section of the mountain was indeed moved by faith, echoing the promise of the Lord, and settled itself in the middle of Barcelona.
The inside of the cathedral is just as magnificent and seductive to the soul as is the view for the homecoming sailor watching for the glint of the ceramic-encrusted spires on a familiar, permanent mountain-shape. When one enters this mountain, one enters a forest of helicoid vaults and hyperboloid columns, shaped themselves along paraboloid lines with the vaults. It is a study in natural surfaces and planes, abstracted, yes, but distilling the essential shapes one finds in nature, distilling and ordering them.
Inside Sagrada, the mysterious watching and waiting, the escape from a work-a-day world that a natural forest provides, is experienced, but married to the Presence in the Tabernacle. The forest finds its end as mystery in the Mystery of the Eucharist: the liturgy of the trees, leaves changing color and with time falling and rising, the seasonal sound of the birds is re-ordered in the light falling through the stone, the liturgical vestments, the choir, the organ.
About the Church as an institution, and about art, Gaudí proclaimed, “The Church makes use of all the arts, both those involving space [architecture, sculpture, etc] and those involving time [poetry, music]; the liturgy offers us lessons in aesthetic refinement.”
I believe Gaudí meant “aesthetic refinement” in both senses of the adjective: both an appreciation or a recognition of beauty and an appreciation of the principles that underlie this beauty. “Aesthetic refinement” can become impoverished when it is simply “good taste” in terms of “style” or an end in itself. At its highest levels, aesthetic refinement is a soul able to see Beauty and the principles that underlie it: Truth, Order, and Love. A true poet, a true soul, will recognize the highest level wherein Beauty is Truth is Love is Order. There, one has found also that these, in their oneness, are in fact not concepts, but a Person: Three Persons in One. Thus, the liturgy, an Art, is meant to form in us an appreciation of Beauty, Truth, Love, Order.
Gaudí saw this and incorporated it into his own art, and yet saw outside his own discipline deep connections in human nature and history contained in the liturgy. One is the dramatic action central to Christian life and liturgy and worship, the Holy Sacrifice. Gaudí saw that this had been foreshadowed in the ancient Greek tragedies, central to the religion and life of the Greeks. He said: “In the Mass there is a dialogue between the celebrant and choir, between priest and faithful; postures and movements are precise and correct; entreaties, blessings, and sermons pronounced… These are of the greatest plastic grandeur and beauty.” For hundreds of years, probably millennia before the Incarnation, human beings have been doing the action of seeking, attempting to become again one with the Source, trying, in the words of Daniel O’Connor, “to repair the relation between the acts of the past and eternity, to ensure that the present has the proper relation to eternity, and to prepare the future to have the proper relation to eternity, mystically taking it into ourselves.” The drama of the Holy Sacrifice is the true expression of the culmination, the consummation of this drama, enacted over thousands of years; it is the expression of the Sacrifice of the Lamb in heaven, seen by St. John mystically in Revelations.
Gaudí also, as a deep Christian, understood that the Church’s spiritual order takes precedence over any of the arts She employs. He related the story of an artist who asked that some especially beautifully-wrought Tabernacles be left uncovered so that they could be seen by the faithful. The Church denied this request, and the Tabernacles were left covered. The mystery is greater than the art, the soul greater than the liturgy, or the vestments, or even the church surrounding it. He knew that a re-ordering or relationship with eternity is a gift from God, a grace, and no human art, dramatic action, or logic can effect that. It is the Incarnation, Sacrifice, and Resurrection of Christ; it is the action of the Holy Spirit, the creation of God. In fine, we can only as artists and poets, imitate it, serve it, dispose others to receive it by first receiving it ourselves.
Gaudí was one of those rare Renaissance-like artists, like Da Vinci, able to produce poetry with logic as a tool; he was a myth-maker, a true poetry-creator, who understood in his sub-creation, “where the Leviathan lies” or “how the pelican feeds her young,” and yet also visualized, always, the wholeness of the thing. He did not let the details or the skeleton of the thing distract him or stop there as in many modern art pieces, but rather saw the revelation in it towards a final wholeness, a final revelation, which can only be seen by poetic wisdom. Gaudí said, “Sagacity is superior to science. The word comes from sapere which means to savor [to taste]; it refers to the fact. Wisdom is wealth, it is a treasure; science provides us with certainty about what we examine; it is required to keep counterfeit coins out of the treasure.”
What is poetic wisdom? Daniel O’Connor, in his book The Crown and Completion of All Sanctity on the writings of Luisa Piccaretta, speaks about poetic wisdom; though about her revelations, it is, I believe, analogically applicable to the work of Gaudí :
G.K. Chesterton shared a great insight when he said, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
Expect to feel overwhelmed if you take the approach of a logician; striving to master these revelations the same way you study the material in a textbook before the final exam of an important class. There are seemingly endless analogies, modes, explanations, applications, and so on. How they all fit together will not be readily apparent…. I merely wish to encourage reading them with the approach of the poet, saying to yourself as you approach them, I will not worry about trying to memorize this or trying to categorize it according to how I already understand…. I will simply read this for the same reason I listen to a beautiful symphony; to be spiritually built up by the impressions it leaves upon my soul rather than to methodically analyze it, writing down the succession of notes….
Trying to understand Gaudí’s work only through logic does overwhelm, as is trying to understand God primarily through formulas, true though they might be. To understand the science and logic behind a flower, or a work of art, can either add to the wholeness and beauty within our understanding, or totally destroy it. It depends on which truth—the scientific or the poetic—is held as closer to the level of truth where Truth, Beauty, and Goodness become one.
The scientific method, or logical steps are important, but lower on the hierarchy of the soul than the poetic, as love is higher than knowledge: “If I have all knowledge, and have not love, I am nothing.” Yet Gaudí said, “[The] procedure of trial and error is required by limited human intelligence. The bases of reason are the rule of three, mathematical proportion, syllogism.” He used this sense of “trial and error,” logical analysis, and a knowledge of mathematical principles to create the natural beauty of his structures: “Paraboloids, hyperboloids, and helicoids cause the incidence of light to vary constantly; they have a wealth of nuances of their own which does away with the need for decorating and modeling.” Scientific knowledge and logic are thus, for human beings, essential knowledge that allows us to build towards truth, like the knowledge of structures, measures, and weights allows for a great building to rise; yet this knowledge is clearly not enough to create beauty that speaks of that higher Beauty: “Work grows out of cooperation, and this can only be based on love; that is why those who have the seed of hatred within them must be set apart,” Gaudí said.
True art, true poetry, whether it is found in the action of the drama, the words of the writer, or the plastic representation of the architect or sculptor, or the aesthetic sermon of the liturgy—and which we are all called through wonder to sub-create or to be formed by—allows Beauty, Truth, Love, Order to enter within us. The experience of true poetry and art is the far cry, clear and luminous, of the Lover who seeks us; the creation of it is our response, our submission of ourselves to Him; we become formed into our true selves either through receiving or giving true art, the art which has its source and end in God.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.