Sagrada Familia. Wikimedia Commons

Love Carved in Stone

We visit Europe’s last cathedral and enter the heart of its maker. Our guide, sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, helps us gaze into a dizzying beauty, whose every inch hides the secret of a life “without measure,” and a faith born of stone.
Davide Perillo

His hammer is suspended in mid-air. His eyes, bent on the workbench. His face is full of powerful beauty, able to impose itself even on the 30-foot shadow it casts. And while you are staring at that young and vigorous Jesus, captured in the most trivial act of a typical day in Joseph’s workshop, you catch yourself thinking something unheard of: you could stay there just looking at Him for hours–maybe forever–awaiting that hammer blow that will come, and at the same time completely enjoying that presence, full, charged with tension. You take a step backward. You look up at the façade, the workmanship of the stone, the towers, the sky. And you realize that, deep down, the soul of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Cathedral in Barcelona is this: the eternal–and expectation. Something that is already there–with all of its imposing splendor–but not yet, a real fact to be seen and touched, which has everything already within it, but that is not yet everything. It is like Christianity. It is Christianity.

Europe’s last cathedral met Pope Benedict XVI, who came to consecrate the high altar of this masterpiece which is so unique and full of mystery as conceived by Antoni Gaudí. It has become the symbol of Barcelona, which for 128 years has watched it rise up, stone-by-stone, and still does not know when it will be finished. On November 7th there were more than 100,000 with the Pope. It was an event, just like each and every papal visit, but with a greater impact, if that is possible–because the Sagrada Família is more than a church. It is a sign. It is the symbol of faith in a Spain that is denying it. It is an edifice built in common by a people, in the heart of a Europe which these days only speaks of nations and individuals. And it is one of the most imposing examples of the possibility of “overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty,” as the Pope reminded us in his homily (see pages 50-51).

“It is the opposite of the measure we are used to,” whispers Etsuro Sotoo in that slow and rich Spanish he has learned over 30 years of labor here. He came to Barcelona in 1978 from Japan, where he had discovered his vocation as a stoneworker, by way of Paris, where the art he had encountered left him unconvinced, “because it seemed dead, and I wanted something alive.” And the Sagrada Familia is alive. He saw it and decided that is where he wanted to work. And so it was. Competition after competition, statue after statue, he has become one of the main sculptors of this Catalan temple, and most certainly the one closest to the spirit of Gaudí. You can see it in action, when he begins to explain the monument to you, and instead of speaking of arches, spans, or Modernism, he starts from measure. “Science measures.We measure because we are creatures. We want to know where we are. We want to know what this world is, thinking that it belongs to us. But in order to measure, you must first look and understand what you are dealing with. And we cannot know everything that has been given to us. Therefore, we do not know what metric to use in order to measure it, and we deceive ourselves.” The conclusion: “The only adequate way to know is faith. With faith, we can discover without measuring.”

“He returned to the origin.” Deep down it is right to start from that point, from the use of reason. It is crucial, when faced with this boundless symbol made up of symbols. There is not one inch of stone that does not point to something else. From the turtle at the bottom of the rain gutter, reminding us that life’s path progresses little by little, to the shafts of wheat and the grapes atop the towers, the supreme sign of the Eucharist, to the statues, the windows, the decorations… Everything says that reality itself is a sign. It points beyond, if you know how to read it with an open heart. “In order to explain certain things with words you need dozens of pages,” observes Sotoo. “For Gaudí, a symbol is enough. The symbol is the concentration of truth, a design that joins together what people normally do not see. We cannot do what God does, which is He designs perfectly. But Gaudí wishes to concentrate everything so that the onlooker can easily read it.”

In the Nativity Façade, the Portal of Love, there are dozens of animals, leaves, fruit, the exaltation of nature, because Gaudí drew all of his ideas from it, from reality. “He had imagination, not fantasy,” explains Juan Bassegoda i Nonell, who has held the Gaudí Chair for 32 years. “He copied nature. He was original, but in the truest sense of the word: he returned to the origin.” That is how to explain the undulating façades, the courageous solutions, the shapes that seem extravagant at first sight to us, accustomed to straight lines and right angles. Instead, they only remind us of what really exists, prior to geometric abstractions and designs.

“Gaudí suffered a great deal,” Sotoo recalls. “Two brothers died as children. He was ill at times. He went to school very little. He struggled with solitude. And there he discovered the observation of nature. He enjoyed it. And he learned. This is his secret.” A secret passed on to Sotoo. Just listen to how he explains the dozens of leaves that he sculpted down below the fruit that makes up the bell towers: “The Church’s job is to make the soul grow, to make it mature. How does Gaudí express that? He learns from nature. How does fruit mature? Thanks to leaves, which absorb the energy of the light. For him, leaves are like words. For us Japanese, by the way, this is very clear. When we say ‘word’ we join two terms: koto and ba, ‘to speak’ and ‘leaf.’ One grows by means of the Word of God. Whoever listens to it more matures. But this is only the first step. As you ascend, and you approach the presence of God, words become useless. You bear fruit.”
You look, you think about the other shapes of the Catalan genius and you understand a bit better what happens when “the intelligence of faith becomes the intelligence of reality,” as the Pope says. Literally, we see the capacity to read within it, and to respect it, placing your whole self in it, to the point of giving it back to man–to your companion on the street–full of a new accent, your contribution. In Gaudí–and Sotoo–this is evident. All of the tension of work aims at keeping together what is already united at the origin, and not dividing. Only this allows one to create. “Gaudí had a clear criterion: structure, function, and symbol must go together, always.”

There is a tall, slender column in front of the Nativity Façade. You almost miss it, taken by the beauty of the statues. Then, Sotoo points out the reliefs to you: the serpent with the apple in his mouth, down below, and the wrought iron fence that surrounds its base. “Gaudí wanted that. He knew people would spontaneously want to touch the column. After some decades, the stone would be worn away.” So he protected it. “But the fence also has another meaning: man thinks he is free, whereas he is in prison. He discounts original sin. He is only free when he ascends.” Indeed, higher up there is no fence: structure, function, and sym­bol. There is not one piece of the Sagrada Família that does not keep them all together, beginning with the mind of its architect. “Today, we only seek the right answer for one problem at a time. This is difficult. If you try to solve one, you find others. They multiply. You need specialists and you wind up wasting time. Instead, we need Gaudí’s way of thinking more than ever. He was looking for a synthesis, not analysis.”
Gaudí also taught other things: patience, for example. Openness. He drew very little. Of course, he made calculations. He studied a great deal. But almost always the result was a mockup, a three-dimensional model, rather than a hyper-detailed project. In one way or another it was a vision, to be proposed and shared, by facing the same obstacles together. “He would show the model to the worker and would say, ‘Nice, don’t you think? Let’s try and do it.’ In that way, he communicated something important yet invisible straight to the heart.” If that worker had an open heart, he would see it. “Gaudí never forces anyone. He proposes. He tells you: ‘I know you will have problems getting there. But if you have the right attitude, you will find the answer. If you are hurried, you will respect nothing and you will find nothing. This is a study in how to build the Tower of Jesus at 500 feet. If you run into problems at 400, there is no turning back. You have to find a solution. But it depends on how you face the situation. If you face the problem this way, it is no longer a problem. It will make you change paths, take a curve, but the goal is there, intact.”
This applies not only to architecture. Facing one of the façades of the Sagrada Família is another building under construction, expressed in undulating walls (“they support the weight better”) and a floor plan in the form of three intertwined hearts (“the Trinity”). It is not a religious building. It was the school for the workers’ children. There were more than 400 during the architect’s time. “He started from a problem: how to avoid accidents at work? By putting workers at ease. How? With money? Impossible. Something else was necessary: hope. And hope lies above all in your children, in the fact that they might have a better future than yours.” Hence, the school. “And, in 128 years, there has never been a fatal accident. A miracle.”

A miracle? Perhaps. Something extraordinary, to be sure, as with all the things that Sotoo takes you to see: the hyperboloids that close the towers, diffusing the light from above in a straight line; the spectacle of ingenuity; and the columns of the nave: 52, one per week, lengthening and changing fluting as they rise–a forest of stone. Something infinitely other than the typical idea of space and time. “So often we say: there is no time,” observes Sotoo. “It is not true. God gives you the time and space you want, if you ask Him for it. We are the ones who measure them. We say ‘time passes by,’ but we are the ones who ‘pass the time,’ and who pass through it. For us, there is past, present, and future. For God, no. The future is now, present.” Here, everything is beyond measure. Not in the sense of enormous, but something that breaks the measure. It surpasses it, to the point of dizziness. A position that is difficult to maintain, if you do not keep the goal in mind: the Meaning.
Not surprisingly, there are arguments about this, often. And battles. For some years, the rush to finish this endless construction site–in short, to measure it, once and for all–has been generating questionable choices. Some are questions of taste, like the LED lights above the columns in the nave, or windows that are thicker or less nuanced. But also there are questions of substance, because nothing here can be detached from the rest. Take the Tower of Our Lady, one of the 18 that will loom over the finished church. It should be the second highest, only after that of Jesus. Problems in the course of construction made them think of shortening it, making it lower than those of the four Evangelists, which is not exactly like building a skyscraper with fewer floors, once the goal has been set.

“Rushing makes you disparage many things,” says Sotoo, bitterly. At the moment, he himself is without a contract, in limbo. But he doesn’t point fingers, nor does he make comparisons (we will, however: just look at the statues of the Façade of the Passion, sculpted by Subirachs…). He only mentions what is most dear to him, and by now you understand perfectly, after a morning of following his gaze. “Many say that Gaudí is dead, that we need to go beyond him. False. He would be dead if no one remembered him or what he did. But that is not the case. The danger is that he be assassinated.”

There is an easy way to do it: stop looking–not at him, but at “what he was looking at,” Sotoo says, as he tells you about the discovery that changed his life forever. It is not merely a question of method. It is much more. It happened a little at a time, entering into him, identifying with the man who, as José Manuel Almuzara, president of the association for the beatification of Gaudí, tells you: “Before designing the façade of the Passion, Gaudí fasted for 40 days, in order to become one with Christ. And every day he walked six miles after work in order to go pray in the Chapel of Saint Philip Neri.” But he was also “capable of getting up from the table during a conversation and saying: ‘I have to go see Our Lady. I have so many beautiful things to tell her.’ A child.” He died in a hospital for the poor, after having been run down by a trolley car and enduring three days of agony, saying, “My God.”

That is why “looking where he was looking” is much more than imitating a style. It means looking at Christ, present here and now. “Gaudí outside of the faith is incomprehensible,” says Almuzara, who in 1991 was Sotoo’s sponsor at his Baptism. Identification has reached this point. “For me, it meant discovering another world,” says the sculptor. But discovering and giving are the same thing for an artist. Sotoo’s most powerful contribution to the Sagrada Familia is the Façade of the Nativity. There are two groups of statues: six angels who play instruments and nine little children who sing. The interplay of their gazes enchants you. But all of them lead to the Baby. “He finished them during Christmas 2000. People say the Sagrada will never be completed. I wanted to give Gaudí a gift for the end of the millennium.”

In some way, it is a “thank you,” because in looking at Gaudí, Sotoo discovered a way to use reason, and we along with him. “Man has always fought against gravity, because gravity pushes you down, whereas architecture ascends. But Gaudí had faith. He thought: gravity comes from God. How can I ascend while respecting God’s will? If I study this stone, I assimilate its character, and in 5 years or 50, it will become something that ascends. It happened. He found solutions by which gravity holds the building up.” Not only technique. “We have been mistaken for centuries about what intelligence is. We think it means converting matter by force, or gravity, or illness, or family problems–multiplying laws and obligations in order to find solutions. But from Gaudí we learn that our true intelligence is obeying reality. If we obey, we discover a strength that allows us not only to overcome the enemy, but to convert him into our best and greatest friend. None of the ancient gods had this power. Poseidon ruled the sea, Chronos time, Uranus the heavens… yet no god dominated his enemy to the point of turning him into a friend. Gaudí says that if we obey, we can do it.”

Vertical freedom. Obedience, and conversion. You began with the stone and you find yourself at the heart of faith or, better, on the threshold. There is one more step. And it is amazing to consider that Gaudí had even thought of this from the beginning. The Sagrada Família is an expiatory Temple. It is there to overcome evil. “The objective is not to create something to make the city proud, but a tool to build man. A tool shines when it is used. When you strike with the hammer, you make both the tool and the stone suffer, so that a beautiful image of man comes forth. The same is true for the Church. It is not an objective, it is a tool. In some way it must also receive this suffering.” Sotoo is speaking of the Temple. But you understand that he is speaking of himself, of his life situation, his limbo, incomprehension... He suffers, and you can see it. “But if through these sorrows we learn something for eternity, then that is fine.” You would like to embrace him, and also Gaudí, as you would embrace a man who is so free from the outcome of his work, as imposing as it is. At the end, you realize that everything rests on that point, on the discovery of an unthinkable freedom. Sotoo calls it “vertical;” that is, what allows you to ascend, overcoming–better, using–gravity. He has dedicated a book to it, published by Encuentro. We will read it. In the meantime, it is enough just to look, and aim your eyes at another statue, which Gaudí wanted on the Portal of the Rosary and Sotoo restored after the Civil War. It is Santiago, the anarchist. He looks at the Virgin Mary, above the door, while a serpent offers him a bomb. “It is one of the great temptations: power.” That young man takes your soul. It is the portrait of a real anarchist, who in 1893 caused 20 deaths in the Teatro Liceu, almost all of them belonging to the family of Pepeta Moreu, the woman with whom Gaudí was in love. But it is the statue that strikes you, with his wide open eyes, his outstretched figure. The hand resting on his weapon, yet still undecided whether or not to listen to the serpent who says, “Do it, it is the right thing to do for you and your comrades.” Gaudí wished to catch him an instant before–at the instant of freedom. And he suggests, not imposes, as always. You don’t know if Santiago will throw that bomb, but you know very well the challenge he is living within, the one that touches you in every instant. And you understand better why “the most important work of the Temple is to build the human.”

You leave and you have a true sense of vertigo, as a friend says: “It is impressive to see the power of man when he serves God.” Impressive indeed. “But our work is to discover it, day by day,” adds Sotoo. “We still have not discovered the true power of the Sagrada Família.” Perhaps the Pope has helped us to understand this better. Sotoo is serious about this consideration: “Yes, that’s right. The invisible becomes visible.” Here and now.