Barcelona’s skyline is punctuated with church spires. Each barrio (suburb) has at least one, if not more, churches. Some have been turned into museums or art galleries, others into bookshops or integrated into a modern structure.
All of the still functioning churches have gypsy beggars locating themselves in the doorways so that you have to step around them to enter. Each has his or her regular ‘patch’. Plaintive wails assault the ears; and deformed or amputated limbs, horrific scars or massive disfiguring birthmarks are exposed to passers by. It is confronting, but you have to walk on by, because the act of tossing some coins into their paper cup can result in you being pick-pocketed.
Two churches in particular stand out: the basilica containing a famous Black Madonna in the Benedictine Monastery of Monserrat (located on a mountain where visions of Our Lady were seen in 880 and lasted about a month), and La Sagrada Familia, designed by Gaudi and commenced in 1882 (anticipated finish within another 30 years).
Monserrat is about an hour’s train ride out of Barcelona, after which you can take a small cable car up from the valley floor (good head for heights essential), or a funicular which zigzags up the mountain side (look at the rock face if the precipitous drop disturbs you) and you emerge at the monastery. Unfortunately the cable car was closed for maintenance, as was the cable car which takes you to the summit. That was disappointing, but did not have time to do the ascent by foot from the monastery as it is a two hour walk one way. The weak sunshine did little to mitigate against a chill wind which whipped across the plaza, a wind which was bitingly cold in the shade of the mountain.
The basilica is an impressive gothic structure, its huge headlight windows each contain a scene from the Nativity story. It also contains a Black Madonna (dated to the 12th century), to which many pilgrims flock.
The wooden sculpture is located high in the apse, overlooking the altar, surrounded by gold and silver. Being the off season, the queue to see the Madonna was in the scores, as opposed to in the hundreds.
There is also an art museum containing a collection of Catalan art, most of which has been donated by from private collections. A wonderful surprise was Caravaggio’s St Jerome, a masterpiece that made nearby works pale by comparison.
Moving forward several hundred years: In April 2012, the last time I saw La Sagrada Familia, it was inundated by thousands of tourists, surrounded by massive cranes, covered in scaffolding and safety webbing, and clouded in swirling dust. I didn’t bother to try to go in. This time, in the winter chill of January, there were few tourists, the scaffolding and webbing were contained to two areas and the previously covered work was now revealed. Wow! I really don’t know where to begin! It’s an extraordinary, organic, light-filled creation. Stone has been selected and located according to its load bearing capacity. I’ll let these photos give a small hint about how diverse a building it is.