Catalan Cathedrals

September 10, 2011

The gothic cathedral style in Catalonia is a bit different from that of France, although you might not know it by looking at the façade of Barcelona’s cathedral.  When you walk in however, the difference is immediately apparent, and you see what is obvious in the plan, that there is no clear crossing making it into the shape of a cross.

Although the photograph below exaggerates the effect, you feel as if you have walked into a giant vaulted shed, and that there is no clear division of space into aisles, although everything does point towards the altar.  The French Gothic plan at the right, below, has a definite crossing aisle that is not present in Catalan Gothic churches.  Note that the crossing in the plan at the top, in Barcelona, is achieved by removing side chapels, not by extending the fabric of the church building outwards.

Why is this peculiar to the region?  It may be the more strongly lingering effect of the classical tradition, flowing from Rome, of the basilica form.  Basilicas are basically long, covered spaces that are rather wide, often with aisles formed by columns.  The are derived from the Roman public buildings used for government and social functions.  Catholic churches at first were simply basilicas with Christian symbols, and many important churches still are called by the name, e.g., Basilica of Saint Peters, the biggest of them all, despite its Christian plan with a crossing and dome at the  intersection.  The basilica form was retained during the Romanesque period, and never abandoned in Italy at all until the Renaissance.  At that point, a great debate ensued over the proper form for churches:  symmetrical with a central dome, which pleased humanist intellectuals but had pagan and Byzantine, i.e. Eastern Orthodox connotations, or the cross-form that was very respectable but associated with Barbarians by the Renaissance intellectuals.

French Gothic cathedrals often have dramatic flying buttresses to hold up their thin walls that are filled with glass, which cannot bear a load.  The outside of the apse of Girona cathedral shows only a few rather puny flying buttresses, and they ‘fly’ nearly horizontally – more like static braces.  The interior of the apse at Narbonne, not all that far from Catalonia, but definitely under the sway of the heretic-slaying northern French by the time this was built, shows the striving for lightness and soaring verticality that is just not part of the Catalan style.

The inside of Girona cathedral is big, but boxy, as is the façade.  The baroque era statuary and the tremendous flight of steps that was added accentuate the drama of its sheer mass.

You can’t talk about cathedrals in Catalonia without mentioning the church of the Sagrada Familia by Gaudi, begun in the late 19th century and scheduled for completion in about thirty years.  Some of the gothic cathedrals took centuries to complete, some were raised in a few generations.  Gaudi had his own style, inspired by gothic, art nouveau, and physics.  The main space of the Sagrada Familia is like no other interior I know or have imagined.  It seems utterly fantastic, like something that belongs in a set for Star Wars, but it is not built of plaster and steel framing – only hard, carved, heavy stones set one on another.  In this space, you seem to be inside a structural skeleton, yet unlike gothic interiors, the ribs and vaults seem to have a life of their own and they extend into and beyond the surfaces they support.

Gaudi favored the catenary arch in his buildings, a form that is developed mathematically, not from aesthetic preference.  They are often referred to as parabolic arches, but they are slightly different, as you can see in the plot below.  A catenary curve is formed when a rope hangs from two points without any load but its own weight.  A parabolic curve is formed when a rope hangs from two points and supports additional loads at even intervals of space, as with the suspension cables on a bridge.  Gaudi felt that the catenary arch, an inverted catenary curve, was best suited to carry the weight of his buildings, and he created this dizzying inverted model of the Sagrada Familia to test his designs.  Each hanging string and weight represents an arch in the stone structure.

Outside, the facades look almost traditional compared to what’s within.


Gaudi too, honored the classical tradition, sometimes in odd places.  Here, in a detail from the pavilion at the Guell Park, is a variation on the Greek Doric motif, complete with drops of water placed on the dentils in the frieze.


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