The month of May which has just gotten underway has traditionally been, and still is, the month dedicated to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary.
The roots of this custom date back to ancient Greece. At that time, the month of May was dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of fertility. Ancient Rome transformed this dedication into a similar one, to the goddess of plants, Flora, whose intercession was requested in the Floral Games which were held during this time of year. Likewise, the universal love of mothers is translated into a love of Mother Earth, our planet, which is in the midst of springtime this month and is blossoming with all its colours.
This memory of the earth from which we spring, like a yearning for our mother’s womb, is expressed quite aptly in the apsidal form of churches in their chevets. The apse of a church is the concave niche which contains the altar, which represents Jesus Christ-God himself as held by Mary inside her womb. In the Sagrada Família, Gaudí decided to place over the altar the canopy which symbolises the Holy Spirit, who is also considered Mary’s spouse, as the seed that engendered Jesus Christ was conceived from it. This is why the canopy is shaped as a seven-sided polygon, with one gift of the Holy Spirit on each of them. The apse also has seven chapels and the tower of the Virgin Mary has fourteen sides. Therefore, everything is related.
But getting back to the Earth, we will see how Gaudí also bore it in mind when crowning all the spires of the apse with ears of wheat and plants which he had found on the grounds of the Temple, petrified and augmented in size. Likewise, all the stone railings crowning the walls which wend around the chapels in the apse bear sculptures depicting all kinds of vines and leaves. In fact, the idea of surrounding Mary with a garden is not new, since this doctrine on the virginity of Mary represented within or near an enclosed garden, called hortus conclusus, as a representation that she had to be protected, has been illustrated since Gothic and Renaissance art.
Mary’s relationship with the tower of the apse is clear and direct in the Sagrada Família with the wording of the Hail Mary at the base of this tower. The tower starts from the triangular pediments on the upper level of the apse. There are five pediments, even though they are atop a seven-sided polygon, but the two sides which remain inside the volume of the Temple naturally have no pediment. These five pediments reveal four funnels to collect water between the pediments. On these funnels, this Hail Mary prayer had been written in blue trencadís mosaic at the time when the vaults were closed to consecrate the Basilica in 2010. More recently, however, when revising the design of the tower elevation and the geometric repercussions at the base, its visibility and legibility were improved: the prayer was written in relief protruding from the stone, without the blue mosaic which caused glare and confusion, and the occasion was seized to revise the text of the prayer and add the flower sculptures which had yet to be made.
The flowers chosen for these four more visible funnels from the street are the lily, the narcissus, the lily-of-the-valley and the jasmine, all of which are often identified in representations of the Mother of God.
This intervention was also used to make the Hail Mary more universal. This prayer has two parts, but only the first part is common to all the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican denominations. The second part, which begins with “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…”, was added in the Middle Ages, in an era of many struggles and high mortality, and this is why it ends with “… now and at the hour of our death. Amen”.
Initially, only the beginning of the first part and the beginning of the second part had been included, but now the complete text of the first part has been added in Latin:
“Ave Maria, gratia plena,
benedicta tu in mulieribus,
benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus”
In any event, part of the rest of the text was retained thanks to the space provided by the coats-of-arms in the three central windows in the apse. Similar to the coats-of-arms in the windows which proclaim “Demus Gloriam Deo” in red letters throughout the naves and transepts, on the coats-of-arms in the windows of the apse three of the fifty litanies of the Marian rosary are written in blue letters: “Holy Mary”, “Mother of God”, and “Queen of Peace”. The first two names are the better known and come at the beginning of this prayer; however, “Queen of Peace” refers to the peace that is so universally desired around the planet, the same peace that Jesus left us after his death on the cross.
In fact, we could say that it is the same Jesus who clearly manifests this love of his mother when he utters one of his last sentences from the cross in his desire not to leave his mother an unprotected widow; with these words, he makes his beloved disciple, John, her new son: “‘Woman, behold your son’, and then he said to his disciple, ‘Behold your Mother’”. Therefore, we can see how the veneration of Mary, Mother of God, a display of love for the universal mother, is a tradition that is as deeply rooted as it is ancient, and one with which Gaudí totally identified, as he clearly shows in the apse of the Sagrada Família with this flower and prayers.