If the Oratory of St. Philip Neri located in the northern Barcelona neighborhood of Gràcia looks familiar on the outside, that is because it should. The facade of the building was partially based on the Baroque-era Oratory located in the Gothic Quarter, about which I have written previously. Founded in the 19th century to serve newly-expanded Barcelona’s northern districts, in association with the 17th-century Oratorian house located near the city Cathedral, the far larger, Neo-Baroque structure was largely the work of Josep Artigas i Ramoneda (a relative of mine.)
Artigas i Ramoneda, who was both a practicing architect and a professor of architectural history at the Barcelona School of Architecture, was looked upon by some of his contemporaries as a reactionary, particularly with regard to the great weight he accorded the Christian house of worship as being the most important of all structures built by man. Many artists and architects working in later-19th century Barcelona, as well as throughout Spain, wanted to cast aside the religious-themed structures and artworks which, they believed, were no longer relevant to modern society. Artigas i Ramoneda’s response was to suggest that, like the humanists of the Renaissance who went too far in embracing paganism in their work, contemporary architects and artists were neglecting the centrality of Christian worship to the human soul:
One does not create a new art unless a new and transcendent ideal comes to embody the hearts and minds of the people, something which the Renaissance did not support. Thus was the Renaissance, and so too will be our own days if an effort from the heart and of love in contemporary artists, who shine so brilliantly in their know-how, does not lead them to the religious ideal, and the artistic ideal, of the Middle Ages. For [medieval artists] taught us how to feel, and knowing how to feel and how to do, is how our own architectural works will have both character and their own style.
The Oratory has an important association with Barcelona’s great architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, who lived in the neighborhood of Gràcia for many years and who would stop at the Oratory in the evenings for vespers. Gaudí, who was a daily communicant, would spend time in prayer, and meet with his spiritual director here after work. He helped arrange for his contemporary, the painter Joan Lllimona, to create two new paintings of Saint Philip Neri for the Oratory, and it is said that Llimona’s model for the bearded saint was Gaudí himself. In fact, Gaudí was on his way to vespers at the Oratory after work on June 7, 1926, when he was struck and mortally wounded by a tram.
During the Civil War in 1936 the church was torched and sacked by Left-wingers, but fortunately the structural damage was comparatively minor. After renovations services quickly resumed, and have continued to the present day. In addition to its religious functions, the cloister of the Oratory has become a well-known venue for more intimate open-air concerts of sacred, classical, and Catalan traditional music.