La Sagrada Familia’s Unlikely Chief Sculptor: A Japanese Convert to Catholicism

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In 1978, Etsuro Sotoo was a young art professor in Kyoto when he visited Barcelona and stumbled upon Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. He was awestruck by the ornate basilica, describing it as a “mountain turning into a cathedral, or a cathedral turning into a mountain.” Sotoo decided then and there to move to Spain to work on the iconic structure.

At the time, La Sagrada Familia was largely abandoned. Construction had stalled decades earlier with only one facade and part of the interior complete. But Sotoo was determined to carry on Gaudi’s vision. He got a job as a stonemason at La Sagrada Familia and spent years studying Gaudi to try to channel the brilliant architect’s aesthetic. Sotoo was so dedicated that he even converted to Catholicism to better understand Gaudi’s religious inspiration.

Over the next four decades, Sotoo played a pivotal role in the ongoing construction of La Sagrada Familia. He created prominent sculptures like the bronze door on the Nativity Facade, decorative roof ornaments, stone angels, and more. His prolific, faithful work earned him the title of chief sculptor for the basilica — a remarkable achievement given that he hails from Japan while La Sagrada Familia is the symbol of Catalan culture.

Despite the immense pressure of furthering Gaudi’s legacy, Sotoo stays focused through his love of sculpting. “I realized that by cutting stone, I was actually sculpting myself,” he said. His journey from a visiting professor in Japan to an artist remaking himself through La Sagrada Familia is unique. However, Sotoo hopes visitors see themselves reflected in the soaring church. “I want the people that enter Sagrada Familia to perceive Jesus in their hearts,” he explained.

The end goal is finishing construction by 2026 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Currently, over 3 million people visit each year and donate $25 million towards building efforts. When complete, La Sagrada Familia will have 18 towering spires as an ode to important Christian figures. Sotoo is at work on the monumental Jesus tower which he hopes invokes religious awe. He leaves the decorative elements open to interpretation, saying: “You are the ones who finish the work.”

In this way, Sotoo has linked his life’s purpose to La Sagrada Familia for over 40 years and counting. The aging sculptor devotes each day to raising Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral, stone by intricate stone. By doing so, he shapes both the landmark and himself into a singular artistic and spiritual legacy. La Sagrada Familia has transformed into Sotoo’s calling just as his talents have forever transformed La Sagrada Familia.

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