Of Stained Glass and Snails




Parc Guell was my first glimpse into the genius of Gaudi and his remarkable ability to blend art, nature and engineering. I learned more about this when I explored Sagrada Familia. This building (to call it a building feels so inadequate) moved me in a way that has rarely happened in my life when I’m in a city. Usually these emotions of calm and peace only descend upon me in the countryside. Gaudis’ goal was to recreate the feeling of being in a forest, and this is how it felt to me. I can only imagine how incredible it would be to explore this place in solitude. As it was, I was surprisingly undisturbed by the crowds.


I had bought my tickets in advance for a 16:45 entry into the basilica and then a climb up the passion side at 17:15. I thought this would provide ample time to explore the church, then go to the top and leave. I wound up spending more than two hours basically walking around in a dazzled amazement with my jaw often dropping in awe of what I was absorbing.

Every element of Sagrada Familia is an intentional design meant to evoke an emotion or a thought. The eastern portion is called the Nativity. This portion illustrates the beginning of Christ’s life with scenes of nature eliciting the feeling of abundance and hope. As my friend Jessica accurately described the pictures I sent her, the stone work looks a little like it was inspired by a mud dauber wasp. The work is highly textured and complex. Many portions are seemingly impossible to build – curvy dimensions coated in mosaic tiles.


The western (Passion) side is a stark contrast with sharp, angular lines and dramatic shadows. This side depicts the Passion, or the death, of Christ. I found these carvings to be striking and bold with many faces completely blank.

I was nervous to miss my appointed entry time so I arrived about an hour before. This gave me time to try the famous churros and choco while admiring a view of the church. I found a cafe across the street and placed my order. I have enjoyed many fantastic foods in my travels and this ranks up there in the top 10, such a wonderful, simple food. Delicious and fulfilling is how I would describe this Barcelona speciality. Another friend named Jessica (yes I have a couple…) had recommended I must try this during my visit to the city.

I walked around a little while and still had some time to spare and spied one of my favorite beers on offer at another cafe near the church also with a great view, so I enjoyed a “Punk IPA”.

Hey – I had walked nearly 30 K already and I was a little calorie deficient… I shared a table with a lady who looked about 5 years younger than me. The habit of table-sharing is a wonderful tradition in Europe. It’s pretty common that if you only one or two chairs at a 2 or 4 person table that you’ll share the table with someone else, even, GASP, a stranger! Sometimes I don’t talk with the people at the table, but after walking around all day on my own and in silence, I was curious to meet this lady. She was from Wales. A former fashion designer in London who quit the corporate world and moved back to her home-town to become a baker. She was learning the trade from scratch. We had a flowing discussion about life, goals, career ambition and what truly brings happiness. I was impressed by her boldness in taking a completely different path in life. She had entered fashion for the passion of drawing and creating and when she began to work at a big fashion house all the work went to computer designs and, as she described it, selecting 20 different shades of color for a shirt design was not what she had imagined in school. When she described the act of baking, physically making something with her hands every day, she appeared supremely happy. I had the impression that baking was but one chapter in what would be a fulfilling life. We pleasantly parted ways when it was time for her to head off to watch a Eurocup game with some friends. It’s interesting the conversations that pop up when you meet someone for a bit and know you’ll probably never see them again. I find these can be the most instructive as I’m exposed to a whole new way of thinking and living.

Inside the church, my eyes were first drawn to tops of the columns and a netted area in the top of the northern corner of the church. The filtered light coming through the nets gave a smokey appearance. It reminded me of my visit to Notre Dame and the magic of a plume of incense wafting across the pews. I had a pass that included the audio tour, which was very nice by the way, informative and without too much detail. I learned that the columns were designed to recreate the form of tall trees, which they really did! The stained glass was also purposely designed to be more gentle in color on the sunrise side and more brilliant on the sunset side.

I was drawn, literally I felt magnetically pulled, to the stained glass on the southern edge of the western wall. It glowed like a fire. I have only ever seen such colors in the hot embers of a bonfire in our backyard in North Carolina. Within the stained-glass panels, the blocks of color were simple, filled with very little symbolism, drawing instead the focus to the pure element of light. After this I ascended to the top of passion tower.

The ride up is via elevator, there’s no option to walk, which made me a little sad. I really enjoy walking to the top of church towers in Europe. I learned we would have the chance to walk down the stairs, which turned out to be my favorite part. The views from the top were nice, although you’re not really very high above the city. The most interesting views came on the descent when I could get closer to the intricate towers topped with a bunch of strawberries or oranges, or whatever magical fancy was in Gaudis’ mind. Finally, we excited the main tower and began the final descendant to the bottom.


This section of stairway was the most incredible architecture I have experienced in all my travels. I felt that I was inside the swirl of a snail shell. Delightedly I learned that it was the intention of Gaudi to recreate the pattern of a snail she’ll in these stairs. He did it! As I stepped out of the stairs back into the main church I wandered back to the stained glass and watched the light glow on the walls for a few more moments before leaving the church to continue exploring the city. But before I left I stopped in to the gift store to select a souvenir. I was surprised to find a silver pendant that recreated the spiral of the snail staircase. This had to come home with me, and it did.

The spirals spoke to me in a unique way. Since I’ve moved to Germany I’ve taken up drawing again. A passion of mine when I was a child. My drawings often begin with a spiral and then are built into more elaborate patterns that I fill in with bold colors. Why the spiral? I can’t answer that question, but I have found that I continue to encounter these spiral patterns in my life now. The spiral staircase, a lovely pair of earrings, this meme I found on Paulo Coehlo’s Instagram… The spirals that I draw often go out, branching into interesting new patterns. Is this my life now, circular paths which slowly deviate and then come back to the same ultimate pattern? Time will tell as the pattern unfolds and I find myself again at the end which looks very similar to the beginning.




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