The Design and Construction of St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's Cathedral is one of the main landmarks of London; its huge dome dominating the roiling smoke-clouds of The Blitz is a key image of the second world war home front. But its current design is due to a rebellious secret decision by its architect, who chose artistic integrity over demands of the political and religious mores of his era.
The Destruction of Old St. Paul's
In 1666 the dreadful Plague which afflicted London came to a dramatic end. Over a few days, the old city was burnt to cinders in a massive conflagration- the authorities tried to create firebreaks by pulling down or blowing up wooden buildings, but to no avail. This Great Fire Of London marked a dramatic turning point for the architecture, if not the layout, of the city.
The grandest building wrecked by fire was the mighty St Paul's Cathedral. It was constructed in phases between 1087 and 1314, and first consecrated in 1240. Construction work continued throughout its existence, and at its greatest extent, it was 178m long and 88m across the arms of its cross; the spire being 149m high (higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza; although it was destroyed by lightning in 1561). It was extremely gothic, with flying buttresses, spikey bits and pointed arched windows. But it was in a bad state of repair, and at the time of the fire, the church authorities were vaguely thinking about major reconstruction works. The main structure appeared to have survived the fire, but started falling down bit by bit soon afterwards.
One illustration of the contemporary anti-catholic attitude can be seen today at the Museum of London; a plaque which was in place at The Monument to the Great Fire from its construction until 1831 (having been removed during the James II reign), which read:
"This pillar was set up in perpetual remembrance of the most dreadful burning of this Protestant city, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction, in the beginning of September, in the year of our Lord 1666, in order to the carrying on their horrid plot for extirpating the Protestant religion, and old English liberty, and introducing popery and slavery."
An unfortunate Frenchman was found guilty of starting the fire and hanged. Needless to say, the fire was started accidentally. Thank goodness we don't scapegoat entire religions in the name of liberty when we feel threatened nowadays!
Reconstructing a City
The King gave the job of redesigning London to Christopher Wren, at that time better noted as a scientist and a founder of The Royal Society than an architect. He redrew the capital as a column-filled Italian metropolis with radial streets leading to several hubs at important buildings. Broad roads would delineate segments and grids, bringing a sense of order, beauty and subtlety. Visitors to 21st century London will see that his plans were never adopted. Today, the city's streets follow their original narrow, twisty medieval layout in many areas. This is because 17th century householders insisted on keeping their pre-fire boundaries unchanged, and businessmen rebuilt their old workshops and emporia where they had stood without waiting for the say-so of an Oxford-based academic.
But Wren was given a slightly freer reign with the city churches. He tossed off dozens of designs for replacement places of worship, many of them stunningly beautiful. Fifty-one of these were built, and the majority survive to this day. They all have a similar classical vocabulary, but he managed to make each one unique, especially in terms of their spires.
The St. Paul's Design Process
Wren had been working on plans for improvements to Old St. Paul's for some time before the fire; but that disaster brought a new urgency to his efforts. His first attempt (known as the Greek Cross) would look familiar to today's Londoners; a cruciform with a huge central dome and classical trim. The trouble was that the church commissioners hated his proposal. They phrased their distaste delicately, saying the blueprints were "too Italian"; everyone knew they meant "too catholic". The central dome screamed "Saint Peter's Basilica". Liturgically speaking, the large central crossing space was an inappropriate place for an Anglican altar. England had just come out of its post-civil war interregnum, when Cromwell's puritanical parliament ruled. It was still felt that anything other than a good, protestant gothic building with the altar up at the far eastern end was dangerous, sacrilegious, unpatriotic or ungodly.
Wren was sent back to his worn drawing board to come up with something more acceptable. No one had ever tried to design a protestant cathedral before. His compromise was known as the "warrant design". It featured a much reduced dome as a minor feature in a tall spire, and this gave a much reduced central area, and more of the gothic feeling of a single, long space; it offered a similar overall shape to the great medieval churches of England. However, the exterior was still basically classical, if less elaborate. The church commissioners approved it, and the King signed a warrant for its construction in 1675.
Charles II and Wren were old college buddies. Charles was a flamboyant fellow, and certainly a catholic sympathiser; he is thought to have converted to that faith on his deathbed. Perhaps this lead him to include the following in the warrant he issued to Wren:
'pleas'd to allow the liberty in the Prosecution of his work, to make some variations, rather ornamental, than essential, as from time to time he should see proper'.
As Wren set to work, the building that emerged was looked somewhat like the warrant design, but as time went on, it became obvious that something odd was going on.
The Finished Building
The commissioners did not get what they ordered. Today's building does not look anything like their approved design. In fact, Wren had his builders construct as much of his original "Greek Cross" as possible. The ornate classical columns, scrolls and friezes; the catholic-style dome and the large crossing space are all as he originally envisaged them. Wren died in 1723 aged 91, some 15 years after the building was completed. He is buried inside his masterpiece, with the inscription "Si monumentum requiris circumspice".
London owes Wren a great deal for his clarity of vision and swaggering boldness. St. Paul's Cathedral is a magnificent structure, and my very favourite building. It sits on a small rise, and still towers over the surrounding buildings both in its colossal physically and the refined order of its style. It continues to serve the capital as a centre of the Anglican faith, and for spiritual and ceremonial life generally. From my usual vantage point in an office across the Thames, its white portland stone gleams in the light, reflecting the pinks, whites, yellows and reds of the sun's journey across the sky.
- Old St. Paul's, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Paul's_Cathedral#.27Old_St_Paul.27s.27
- Christopher Wren
- Good Venue Guide, http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_19980301/ai_n14147454
- Christopher Wren and St. Paul's Cathedral, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/gallery_st_pauls_01.shtml
- Illustrations of Masonary, http://altreligion.about.com/library/texts/bl_illustrations57.htm