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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 22:05 GMT 23:05 UK
'Saint Gaudi' movement gains momentum
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
Gaudi's huge cathedral in Barcelona is still not finished
By Flora Botsford in Barcelona

The long and complex process which could set Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi on the path to sainthood, has begun.

The Vatican has declared "nihil obstat", or no obstacle, in the bid to make a saint of the eccentric genius loved by residents and visitors to Barcelona alike.

Gaudi is best known for the city's unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.


It's just like someone winning an Oscar or a literary prize

Gaudi supporter Jose Manuel Almuzara Perez
A dozen other works, including the Parc Guell, have left their unique mark on the city, which is proudly possessive of its most famous former resident.

Jose Manuel Almuzara Perez, architect and president of the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudi, is thrilled by the Vatican's move..

"It's just like someone winning an Oscar or a literary prize," says Mr Perez.

"It's our way of saying 'What a great man!' We want to give him a prize and in the Church we can make great people into saints, to serve as an example to other people".

Sudden death

Once "nihil obstat" has been declared by the Papal authorities in Rome, the process passes to the local diocesan level, with a specially constituted "tribunal" being set up to consider the evidence.

This is being collected from various sources, including elderly people who personally knew Gaudi before his sudden death, under the wheels of a tram, in 1926.

The tribunal will have to investigate Gaudi's reputation of holiness alongside another reputed side to his character: bon viveur.

One famous description of the architect as a 'young man, dressed as a dandy, lover of fine cuisine and beaming in the Liceu Opera House', by the author Josep Pla, is particularly worrying.

Freemasonry

Or worse, Gaudi is alleged to have had connections with freemasonry.

His supporters point to the Sagrada Familia itself as proof of his reverence for God and the Catholic Church.

In 1915, Monsignor Ragonesi, Papal Nuncio in Spain, visited the Sagrada Familia when it was in the early stages of construction.

"Maestro, you are the Dante of architecture," he told Gaudi. "Your magnificent work is a Christian poem carved in stone."


Gaudi was a creator, an extraordinary man, perhaps the greatest artist of our century - but a saint, no, I don't understand it

Sculptor Jose Maria Subirachs
The building is clearly the work of a deeply religious man. Its soaring towers are designed to reach towards heaven.

Virtually every surface is covered with biblical motifs and the whole structure is inspired by Gaudi's vision of God's creation.

Similarly, no one is questioning Gaudi's dedication to the project. He spent his last years in extreme poverty, living and working on site, supervising every stage in its development.

Gaudi, like other creative geniuses, found that his obsessive energy and quirky lifestyle were often taken as signs of madness.

Reduce stature

What is bothering Jose Maria Subirachs, one of the sculptors working to complete the Sagrada Familia, is that making Gaudi a saint, an official representative of the Catholic Church, may somehow reduce his stature as an artist.

"Gaudi was a creator, an extraordinary man, perhaps the greatest artist of our century," says Mr Subirachs.

"But a saint, no, I don't understand it."

His feeling is that the Catholic Church should not be allowed to stake its claim to Gaudi's life and memory.

Magnificent

"The important thing is that Gaudi is a universal artist. Everyone of different religions, different beliefs, comes here to see his work," he explains.

"So it seems to me better to leave him as he is."

And the tourists do come, in their thousands, even though the magnificent Sagrada Familia is still very much a work in progress.

Tall cranes surround the building, blocks of stone lie in piles, and drills and hammers can be heard working all day.

In the great tradition of cathedrals, it could still take another 100 years to complete the Sagrada Familia as Gaudi intended.

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