My favorite building in the world is the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, where its Passion Façade in particular is an exceptional creation and object for contemplation. Its creator, the Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs,1 who died three weeks ago, was an adherent of the New Figuration movement that brought figurative elements back to sculpture in the 1960s and which Subirachs explains as follows:
“The images of the artists of the new figuration are used in the same way in which abstract artists use form: transformed into signs; because of this, abstract art does not represent but it does signify. Therefore, new figuration too does not represent anything but does signify, which makes me want to call it significative figuration.”When Subirachs was then asked to create the Sagrada Familia’s Passion Façade, depicting the last two days of Jesus’ life, his two conditions were that he would not imitate Gaudí and follow his own, free creativity instead, and that he would live in the grounds of the church, like Gaudi - whom he admired - lived. While being granted these two requests (and being heavily criticized for his choices subsequently), Subirachs nonetheless was keen to embody Gaudí’s vision, which was the following:
“Some might find this Façade too extravagant; but I would like it to inspire fear, and I would not spare the use of chiaroscuro, of motives of entry and exit, all that results in the most theatrical effect. What’s more, I am prepared to sacrifice the construction of the church itself, to break arches and cut columns, to transmit the bloodiness of the Sacrifice.”How Subirachs did it though is very different from what Gaudí would have done. For a start, Gaudí considered curves - round, organic shapes - to be “the line of God.” “Instead,” Subirachs says, “my shapes are very geometric, with flat faces and sharp edges, and provide the drama that the scene I am representing needs.” There is also a minimalism in Subirachs’ approach, e.g., where he leaves out the two thieves crucified either side of Jesus and a depiction of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which were in Gaudí’s plans, for the sake of a “simple, didactic message.” Such minimalism is at the core of what Subirachs considers to be the essence of sculpture, which is “getting rid of everything that is unnecessary.”
Just to get a sense of how Subirachs approached the depiction of Jesus’ passion, the following shows the plan he drew up before proceeding to create the sculptures:
The story, which Subirachs wanted to be “cinematographic,” starts with the last supper at the bottom left and then snakes its way to the top right where the entombment of Jesus is shown. A golden statue depicting the resurrected Jesus is then located between the towers erected above the façade.
To get a better sense of what the above plan lead to, take a look at the following collection of photos. However, this is just a poor substitute for being there in person. Every time I go to see the Passion Façade, something new stands out for me, and yesterday was no different. What struck me was how the layout of the story, in the boustrophedonic sequence that Subirachs chose, results in three of the characters that betrayed Jesus - Judas, Pilate and Peter - all being depicted in the bottom layer. This, in turn, allows for a viewing of the Passion from their perspectives - with the consequences of their actions (or the source of his sorrows, in Peter’s case) projecting out from them and reinforcing the cause of their grief. In the two following photos you can see the “Passion of Pilate” followed by the “Passion of Peter.”
This also reminded me of Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday homily, where he discarded his prepared text and instead proceeded to reflect on the question of where each one of us fits into Jesus’ Passion, asking: “Where is my heart? Which of these persons am I like?” Subirachs’ Passion Façade is a meditation on the last hours of Jesus life, but (borrowing Benedict XVI’s words about Gaudí) made “not with words but with stones, lines, planes, and points.”
1 If you understand Catalan, there is a great hour-long documentary about Subirachs available here.