Dec 2019 – SAGRADA FAMILIA – Architectural Glass Art or an Aesthetic Failure

Sagrada Familia


I recently visited the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Contrary to what you might think, for a glass specialist this was not an uplifting experience. In fact, it was almost heart-breaking. The stained glass is much lauded by visitors for being the crowning glory of the nearly completed Cathedral. I completely see why they feel this, because the stained glass transforms the building. It uplifts it and does all the things stained glass can do for a space. But for me, the way it was executed was so disappointing it spoilt the wonder of the space.


I feel guilty for being at such odds with the widely held view, and I console myself that most people are not knowledgeable of what is possible with glass.


In the basement of the Cathedral the original designs are exhibited. They were created by Joan Vila-Grau, a well-known Spanish stained glass artist. They are spectacular designs. They are fluid and painterly, based on the idea of softly gradating colours flowing into each other. Different areas of the Cathedral are based around different colour palettes, blues and greens, other parts with reds and yellows, and so on. Because of its simplicity, the whole effect is very architectural. There are no cumbersome images, no attempts to create sweeping gestural flights of fancy. It is a soft flowing eloquent background music. It is an example of how stained glass can create atmosphere without the need for detail.


The artist’s son, in close collaboration with his father, chose to interpret the designs as a leaded mosaic, rather like a cubist painting. There is no gradation of colour, no sense of a brush flowing with pigment, no softness to the tones. In my view, this interpretation transforms the designs from fluid and watery into something quite clumpy and wooden. I have read that the artist was delighted with the interpretation and himself oversaw every aspect. But I can’t help thinking that he could not imagine how it could have been done differently. And it could have been made entirely differently. It could have been expressed as flowing, melting colours, drifting from one to the other with all the softness and delicate tones of a watercolour. It might have been more costly to do it this way, but It would have been worth it.


This would have retained the spirit of the original design, and, perhaps even more important, it would have echoed and resonated with the fluid, organic nature of Gaudi’s building and his entire aesthetic.