The façade of the Passion: history and symbolism of the most terrifying façade of the Sagrada Família

The facade of the Passion is a spectacular representation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This façade, facing west, despite being austere in nature, contains numerous symbolisms and curiosities that enhance its magnificence.

Gaudí conceived this façade with the idea of ​​transmitting the fear and cruelty of Jesus’ sacrifice. To achieve this he was willing to use various geometric shapes with edges or even to sacrifice the construction, breaking arches or cutting columns, to generate a more gloomy effect.

The sobriety of the façade is manifested by the presence of columns in the shape of bones and takes on greater dimension thanks to the sculptures loaded with drama and expressiveness made by Josep Maria Subirachs.

In this article we will give explanations of the most relevant sculptural elements that make up the façade, as well as a brief review of its history and our participation in the construction.

History of the Passion façade

The projection of this façade began in 1911 while Antoni Gaudí was recovering from a Malta fever in Puigcerdà. However, it was not until six years later that Gaudí drew up the definitive sketch that became a guide for the next generations.

The façade of the Passion began to be built after the death of the architect. Gaudí decided to prioritize the construction of the Nativity façade because he considered it more grateful for the spectator. Thus, it was not until 1954 that excavations began on the façade and from 1956 onwards the first stones were laid.

The four towers on the façade were the first to be completed in 1976. Once completed, the next step was to bring the sculptural decoration of the façade to life. This task was commissioned in 1986 to Josep Maria Subirachs, a renowned sculptor who decided to leave his mark through a simple and schematic set of figures with a powerful dramatic effect. His work took place between 1987 and 2009.

Finally, in 2018, the last sculptures were placed, ending the façade after more than six decades of work.

Sculptural set of the portal of the Passion façade

To grasp the message of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is essential to look at the sculptures located on the portal and proposed by Josep Maria Subirachs. These respect Gaudí’s initial project in general terms, although they adapt to a modern aesthetic as Gaudí left very few details about it. Subirachs avoided creating confusion with Gaudí’s original work and decided to leave his own artistic stamp on it.

The order of the scenes represented on the façade is also an approach by Subirachs, which differs from Gaudí’s original proposal, which sought to follow a rather horizontal format. Finally, the scenes of the Passion are read in an inverted “S” shape, ascending from left to right. They depict the Way of the Calvary of Jesus, from the Holy Supper to the burial, and finally the ascension.

The sculptural cycle of the Passion consists of three levels according to its visual arrangement. We review them below:

Lower level
It contains all the scenes from the last night of Jesus Christ and before his crucifixion. These include:

  • The Last Supper of Jesus and the Apostles: contains an inscription referring to the impending betrayal of Judas: “Whatever you are going to do, do it quickly”.
  • Peter and the soldiers: depicts the moment when Peter cuts off the ear of Malcus, the servant of the high priest.
  • The kiss of Judas: in this scene, behind the figure of Judas, you can see a snake as a representation of the devil and a dog as a symbol of fidelity. Right next to the scene there is a cryptogram, otherwise known as the “magic square”, which consists of 16 numbers that allow up to 310 different combinations of sums and which result in the age of Jesus Christ at the time of his death: 33.
  • Peter’s Denial: three women and a rooster next to the apostle Peter represent the three times he denied Jesus Christ before sunrise. Of note is the embarrassed face of the apostle Peter, whose body is covered with a sheet as a symbol of cowardice. Next to this scene there is a maze depicting the path Jesus Christ has just begun to Calvary.
  • Ecce homo: Jesus wears the crown of thorns and is guarded by two soldiers in the presence of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The soldiers ’helmets evoke the characteristic chimneys of La Pedrera, a tribute by Subirachs to this popular work by Antoni Gaudí.
  • Judgment of Christ: Pontius Pilate, assisted by three maids, washes his hands before giving the order of crucifixion. This act symbolizes the attempt to purify himself and to make it clear that he does not share the will of the high priest. The figure who walks away is Proculus, the governor’s wife who has failed in her attempt to intercede on behalf of the accused.

Image credit: Joaquín O.C. via Flickr

Intermediate level

This level represents the Calvary of Jesus after his judgment and in this case the chronological order of events begins on the right. We find the following sculptures:

  • The Three Marys and Simon of Cyrene: In the scene, Simon helps to bring the cross to Jesus Christ when he dies. Around her, the three Marys attend with a gesture of desolation: the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleopas.
  • Veronica: The figure of Veronica is depicted holding a cloth with which she wiped the sweat of Jesus Christ. On the canvas you can see the face of Christ marked in negative. The figure of Veronica has no face so as not to detract from that of Jesus. A curious fact about this scene is that in the background you can see an evangelist with the physiognomy of Antoni Gaudí.
  • The soldier Longinus: here you can see the centurion who wounded the right side of Jesus Christ with a spear. Blood and water flowed from this wound, symbolizing the birth of the Christian Church. Water and blood represent two basic sacraments of Christianity: baptism and the Eucharist.

Higher level

The last row of sculptures depicts the death and burial of Jesus Christ. It is read from left to right, as it happened on the lower level. We can see the following scenes represented:

  • Soldiers throwing dice for Jesus’ robes: the Romans were very fond of dice games. These three soldiers are an example of it and here they gamble the garment of Jesus Christ.
  • The crucifixion: this is the main scene of the portico and that is why we find it clearly visible in the center. Jesus can be seen hanging on an iron cross with an I painted red on the central beam, a symbol of INRI. Next to it are the three Marys and St. John. At the base of the cross there is a skull, a symbol of death and referring to Golgotha, known as the “mountain of skulls”, where Jesus was crucified. Above Jesus we can see a bronze structure representing the veil of the temple in Jerusalem, which was torn at the death of Jesus.
  • Burial: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place the body of Jesus wrapped in a tomb. In the background is the Virgin Mary with an egg on her head, a symbol of the resurrection. The image of Nicodemus is actually a self-portrait of the sculptor Subirachs.

General characteristics of the Passion façade

If we move away from the façade and look up, surely our eyes will go to the imposing towers that stand out in the sky of Barcelona. Each tower on the three facades of the Holy Family represents one of the twelve apostles of Jesus.

The four towers on the façade of the Passion are dedicated to the apostles James the Minor, St. Thomas, St. Philip and St. Bartholomew. All of them are decorated with a large statue, work of Subirachs, which is located at a height of one third of the total length of the towers. The two central towers have a higher height, 112 meters, compared to the two outer ones, which measure 107 meters.

Between the two central towers, at a height of 60 meters, there is a bridge that connects them and that we were lucky enough to work in our workshop. There is a bronze sculpture depicting the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven: a triumphant moment that contrasts with the drama of the whole facade.

Looking down a little we can see an abstract sculpture of Subirachs inspired by a dove, which symbolizes the Holy Spirit and refers to the resurrection of Christ.

Just below is the pediment formed by a set of eighteen columns, on which is placed a cornice of hexagonal prisms and where you can read the inscription “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudæorum”, which means Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews”. In the upper central part of the pediment stands a large cross 7.5 meters high. At the foot of it are three angels, sculpted by Lau Feliu, one of them in an attitude of veneration, another caressing the cross and another holding a chalice with the blood of Christ.

In the two side corners of the pediment there are two animal figures: the lamb of Abraham’s sacrifice and the lion of Judah, the victor over death. Inside the pediment, in the space between the central towers, there is a representation of the quarry where the tomb of Jesus was excavated and which later became an orchard.

The façade is supported by six columns sloping from outside to inside. Between the columns are three bronze portals that give access to the interior of the temple. These are dedicated to Faith, Hope and Charity.

The central portal, that of Charity, is divided into two doors by a mainell where you can see a sign of alpha and omega united, which in Christianity signify the beginning and the end of Creation. The doors contain gospel texts that narrate the last days of Jesus. In front of the portal is a column with the representation of the scourging of Jesus Christ. The column is located on three steps that symbolize the three days that passed until the resurrection.

The portal of the Faith is dedicated to the prayer of Jesus in the garden of the olive trees. We see Jesus praying while his disciples sleep, and in the upper left appears the full moon, as a harbinger of death.

Finally, in the portal of Hope, Jesus appears with the crown of thorns, the mantle and the reed, as a mockery of his condition as king. In another scene, Jesus is led before Herod and Pilate, who appear facing each other symmetrically.

Our contribution to the facade of the Passion

Both the pediment where the Holy Spirit is, the set of 18 columns of the cyma that symbolize the ribs of Christ, the Latin inscription of the pediment, the three angels at the foot of the cross, the bridge that connects the central towers, the orchard of the cyma, like the figures of the lion of Judah and the lamb of Abraham are elements of the Sagrada Familia that we have seen born and raised in our workshop. Every time we look at the Passion façade, we are proud to have been lucky enough to be part of it.

The Sagrada Família project helped us to create the workshop we have today and gave us the technical and economic impetus necessary to be able to work on more ambitious projects. The collaboration on this façade began in 2004, with the production studio, until 2018 with the placement of the angels of the cross.

In this article we review anecdotes from the beginning of the collaboration with the temple of the Sagrada Família. By the way, if you have a stone project in mind, contact us and we will do our best to help you. To give you an idea of ​​what we can do, take a look at some of the many projects we have been involved in.

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