A stairway to heaven? Josep Maria Subirachs’ sculpture in Montserrat

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 by SilentJay76

What is it

Situated in Montserrat, Spain, the Stairway of Understanding is one of the most sacred spots in Spain, which explains why it is such a well-known pilgrimage destination among the locals.

Millions of tourists visit Montserrat every year to lay eyes on some of the most beautiful monuments in the region. The Stairway to Understanding is one of the most beloved attractions.

Stairway to Understanding, also commonly referred to as Escala de l’Enteniment by the locals, was conceptualized by the late Josep Maria Subirachs, one of the best-known Spanish sculptors and painters of his time.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Fintrvlr

Inspiration

Josep Maria was inspired to design and create this monument by Ramon Llull1, the philosopher, mystic, and missionary from the Kingdom of Majorca.

Subirachs’ Monument a Ramon Llull expresses Llull’s thoughts, in which he categorized the different subjects of creation. Therefore, this monument consists of eight rectangular blocks that were stacked in a spiral-like manner to represent seven different beings and their tiered order in life.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY 2.0 by krossbow

Specifically, each of the steps in the monument represents the following beings from the top to the highest stone: Stones, then flame, then plants, beasts, men, heaven, followed by angels and God at the highest spot.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: public domain

Stones, flames and plants are part of the material world and the last three belong to the intellectual world. We engage in both worlds and this duality makes us greedy and virtuous at the same time. Our choices either keep us on the lower steps or move us closer to the top.

Josep Maria Subirachs - The Stairway of Intellection, 2007, polychrome wood, 92 x 40 x 70 cm, Courtesy of Espai Subirachs
Josep Maria Subirachs – The Stairway of Intellection, 2007, polychrome wood, 92 x 40 x 70 cm, Courtesy of Espai Subirachs

Nine parallelepipedic shapes create a set of steps that progressively open up like a fan. Only the last, representing God, is geometrically perfect, a cube with all of its sides polished.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Gerard Girbes

Instagram & Recent popularity

The monument to the 13th-century philosopher has been around for more than 40 years and is set on the edge of a picturesque viewpoint, located just a few steps from the Santa Maria de Montserrat abbey.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Gerard Girbes

From a distance, the dramatic spiral work appears to be rising hundreds of feet from the bottom of the valley, offering some form of slanted angles that has now become extremely popular with Instagram users who arrive to experience the monument from all over the world.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Catalan Art & Architecture Gallery (Josep Bracons)

You can look but can’t climb

Although the monument looks tall and risky to climb to the top, which is now forbidden, the stairway is in actuality only about 9 meters high and positioned on a patio. As such, climbing and reaching the upper tier involves climbing up the 3-meter-wide blocks that represent the eight stages of awareness, from stone at the bottom to God at the top.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by 潘周迪

The sculpture has now been fenced to prevent people from climbing to the top of the monument. Even without climbing to the upper stone, the Subirachs’ artwork is surrounded by a striking mountain range that delivers a sense of calm for anyone that visits the stairway.

The placement underscores the grandness and, installed on one of the terraces of Montserrat mountain, appears to open towards infinity.

View from Josep Maria Subirachs monument
View from the monument, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Ramon Oromí Farré @sobreelterreny

Location

  • Location: The monument is very closely situated to the Abbey of Montserrat, which belongs to the Order of Saint Benedict.
  • Name: Escala de l’enteniment (Escultura) (Stairway to Heaven)
  • Address: 08199 Monestir de Montserrat, Barcelona, Spain
  • Hours: Weekdays: 9h – 17:30h, Weekends: 9h – 18:45h
  • Phone: +34 938 777 777

A little about Josep Maria Subirachs

Josep Maria Subirachs had a long and successful career in several other disciplines, not just creating sculptures. The artist is most remembered for his work in the Sagrada Familia basilica, which was commissioned in 1986.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by HBarrison

Subirachs was commissioned to create sculpture groups for the church’s exterior. It took Josep 18 long years to complete them.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY 2.0 by krossbow

But it was not until the 1960s that Subirachs started attracting international acclaim where the artist was invited to participate in numerous exhibitions all over Europe, America, and China. A large number of his sculptures are spread in public spaces all through Barcelona and Catalonia.

Josep Maria Subirachs - Monument a Ramon Llull (Escala de l'Enteniment) (Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding)), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain
Josep Maria Subirachs – Monument to Ramon Llull (Stairway to Understanding), 1976, concrete, 870 cm, outer area of the Montserrat Monastery, Catalonia, Spain, photo: CC BY 2.0 by krossbow

Footnotes

  1. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/llull/

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