By Peter Mullen
There are forests in Barcelona. Gothic forests. The medieval cathedral is like the dark wood mentioned by Dante — solemn pillars of glory rising like great oaks and among them the wonderfully ornamented woodcarving of the choir like branches criss-crossing the whole chancel. You don't need to lay the symbolism on with a trowel, but it's obvious we are meant to feel lost and overawed until found by God. Found, perhaps, in a single organ tone tricking out the beginning of the little Bach fugue in B minor.
There are innumerable chapels sublimely decorated in a variety of styles from the fantastical Baroque gold and marble twiddly bits to the humanistic faces of Renaissance saints. I wonder if that's what critics of the Renaissance mean when they say "That's where the rot started" — angels and ministers of grace all dune up in the style of European monarchs and prelates. A case could be made, of course, for saying that the very human depictions of the Renaissance pay • homage to the Incarnation and to divine eternities in earthly clay.
But I kept returning to one chapel and its haunting altar piece in partici.] lar — a reredos from 1401 by Gener: the chapel of St Mary Magdalene.
This was before the Renaissance got going and the saints in the painting have a remote and transcendent look of iconic splendour. I always feel this is what religious art means. And Eliot's words describe the feeling as you stand there: You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself or inform curiosity or carry report.
You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.
I lit two candles in the Chapel of Christ of Lepanto where. is placed the icon of Christ carried into that battle, in 1571, on the flagship of Don John of Austria. He was awarded a papal medal for his victory, for saving Catholic Europe. And the future King James VI of England wrote verses in his honour. How times change! In these times of our political correctness, I suspect John of Austria would be dismissed as an unhelpful belligerent.
Amile away is the glorious, mystical construction by Gaudi, La Sagrada Familia. Here are more Gothic trees in stone and 100-foot tall spires curving into the heavens. Why curving? Gaudi said: "There are no straight lines in nature." And at the east and west ends of this thrilling church — it's actually called the temple — are huge tableaux also in carved stone: the tableau of the Nativity and the tableau of the Passion. I dare you to look at these without weeping indiscriminate tears of sorrow and joy. The figures seem more alive than we who walk the streets.
For once I thought the guidebook got it just about right: "The idea for La Sagrada Familia came as a response to calls from Pope Pius IX for a renewal of the Catholic faith which he saw threatened by ideas of liberalism, democracy, modernity and other such iniquitous nonsense."
Gaudi began La Sagrada Familia in 1882 and, paid for by private subscription, it continues still. When it's finished, there will be 100-foot spires to the twelve Apostles, a 125-foot spire to the Blessed Virgin and over the lot, a 175-foot tower to Christ in Majesty. For the great Gaudi, his creation of gothic-modernism was an act of religious devotion. The longer he worked at his spiritual masonry, the more religious he became. I read some words of his while 1 was in Barcelona and they seem suitable to bring home for Lent: "St Anthony of Alexandria went into the desert and sowed and planted to get salads and fruit to eat. This is real asceticism. Physical exercise and moderation in food, drink and sleep are mortifications of the flesh. They fight lust, beastliness, drunkenness and sloth."
And so there, like a holy frolic, are the living stones of Gaudi's masterpiece. This is not just an explanation of the Faith, but an incarnation of glory in glass and stone.
Gaudi himself was run over by a tram in 1926 and refused to be removed from the hospital for the poor to which he had been taken as an emergency. His beatification is being promoted even as pilgrims flock to his shrine. In Barcelona they call him "God's architect".
This is not art for the cognoscenti, the sycophantic gallery-crawlers anxious to demonstrate their knowledge of the most obscure in the hope of impressing us with their culturalknowledge. You know the sort of thing: "And if you look down at the centurion's sandal you will see a little mark which is actually the working emblem of the artist. And should you visit his masterpiece in Toledo, you will find the same image — although interestingly with four petals and not three — on the hem of St Agnes' dress..." And so on. Verily they have their reward.
Furn Barcelona I travel 35 miles on a clean and timely little Wain (British transport companies, please pay attention) to a cable car that took me up the holy mountain at Montserrat. No wonder Our Lady chose to appear there, it's the best view south of the Pyrennecs.
And, 4,000 feet up, is a basilica the size of a cathedral. On the hour of one o'clock the choirboys in their tabards emerge to sing Byrd's "Ave Maria" and a sublime bit of Mozart that made me cry into my packed lunch. Over the high transept is the image of the Black Madonna. You ought not to speak in such sacred space. Indeed, the notices ask you not to. So why did I have to tap those two nice Spanish ladies on the shoulder and ask them to keep the noise down?