Carving over the South Transept showing St. Andrew, and below, the Phoenix rising from the flames above the word Resurgam ("I will rise again").
I’ve always loved St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. I’ve been a fan of Christopher Wren’s work for most of my life. Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, like Saint Peter’s in Rome, is a building that has fascinated me since childhood. Like Saint Peter’s, I only visited it once, and briefly. I visited it on the very day that I arrived in London. It was late afternoon, and I only had a couple of hours before evensong. The building would close for the day immediately after the service concluded. I arrived too late to explore the dome, which at the time was a disappointment. In retrospect, I’m not sure my acrophobia could have handled the Whispering Gallery. It was a windy day of rain and alternating sunshine, and the cathedral was brighter on the inside than I had anticipated. I had amazing good luck with scaffolding. Only a small portion of the base of the south tower was in scaffold. Part of the organ inside was under scaffolding, but the rest was scaffold free and looking much fresher and cleaner than most of the photographs I’d seen.
I toured the cathedral and the crypt on my own, and then stayed for a magnificent evensong service. I saw Nelson and Wellington in the crypt, and spent time in the artists’ mausoleum under the choir. I looked askance at the elaborate tomb slab of John Everett Millais, only to discover that the relatively plain tomb slab that I stood on belonged to JMW Turner. I saw John Donne’s very striking tomb, and older tombs still scarred from the fire of 1666. What really struck this New Yorker was how kind (beyond nice, kind) the cathedral staff was. I felt genuinely welcome to participate in evensong, even though Church of England office is not nearly as similar to Episcopal office as one would expect. The tourists who did not participate were welcome to stand and watch, and many did almost filling the nave (very different from services in Italian churches where non-participating tourists are brusquely shown the door).
I was not disappointed. The building was every bit as splendid as I expected and bigger than I imagined. I love this building, and I love Wren’s work. Londoners always had more mixed feelings about their cathedral. Saint Paul’s was always controversial, even as it rose over the city at the end of the 17th century. Wren himself had mixed feelings about the final result. I love it perhaps because I’m an American. Visitors always loved this cathedral more than the natives. What’s remarkable is how little influence Saint Paul’s had on later English architecture, and yet there are large monumental imitations of London’s cathedral in Paris (Saint Genevieve-The Pantheon by Soufflot), Saint Petersburg, Russia (Saint Isaac’s Cathedral), and in Washington DC (the dome of the US Capitol designed by Thomas U. Walter), and in state houses and court houses throughout the US, and provincial parliament buildings in Canada. The tourists always loved it, the locals less so.
Londoners seemed to start complaining about the building even before the first stone was laid. Conservative Anglican divines repeatedly obliged Wren to alter his designs. His proposals were far too “Romish” for their comfort. The poet and artist William Blake famously hated Saint Paul’s, considering it the very embodiment of that compromised institutional religion of law and rationality he always hated (never mind that his beloved Gothic was as much bound up with mathematics and measure, with the ambitions of king, bishop, and burgher, as Wren’s baroque edifice). Byron and the rest of the Romantics also hated Saint Paul’s. Byron dismissed it as just so much “commerce piled up to the sky.” The Victorians hated the building. Its baroque bulk offended Victorian religious sensibilities and English nationalism (every northern and central European nation in the 19th century claimed Gothic as their national and truly “Christian” style, only the French claim was legitimate). They added dark stained glass windows and archaizing Pre-Raphaelite mosaics to make the building into something other than what it was, to make it closer in feeling to Hagia Sophia’s mystical dark and further from Bramante’s classical light. Hitler’s Luftwaffe removed most of those Victorian accretions in World War II.
Hitler’s incendiary bombs finally persuaded Londoners to love their cathedral. Its great dome stood courageously in the fire and smoke of the assault on London, and on basic civilization and decency, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Britain since the Anglo-Saxons invaded. St. Paul’s, especially its dome, stood for London and for all that is civilized in the face of a horrific and barbarous attack. Miraculously, the cathedral survived (though not unscathed) a series of air raids that destroyed the city center in a way not seen since the Great Fire of 1666. Saint Paul’s rose out of catastrophe a second time.
Today, Saint Paul’s great 365 feet high dome stands dwarfed by real piles of commerce in glass and steel climbing higher in the sky than Wren or Byron ever imagined as The City remakes itself as an international hub of the financial industry.
The cathedral in the midst of The City
The Cathedral dome at night with City towers
The cathedral now looks to me like some quaint oversize relic that got lost on the way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and deposited in the middle of downtown Atlanta. The combined forces of Hitler and the FTSE completely destroyed the cathedral’s original architectural context.
The apocalyptic dread of the year 1666 seemed fulfilled from September 2nd to September 5th when the whole city center of London, everything within the ancient Roman walls, caught fire and burned to the ground. The fire threatened Westminster and only firebreaks created by demolishing sections of the city prevented the fire from spreading further. The diarist John Evelyn witnessed the cathedral’s destruction:
September 7th – I went this morning on foote from White-hall as far as London Bridge, thro' the late Fleete-streete, Ludgate Hill, by St. Paules ... At my returne I was infinitely concern'd to find that goodly Church St. Paules now a sad ruine, and that beautifull portico ... now rent in pieces, flakes of vast stone split asunder, and nothing now remaining intire but the inscription in the architrave, shewing by whom it was built, which had not one letter of it defac'd. It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heate had in a manner calcin'd, so that all the ornaments, columns, freezes, capitals, and projectures of massie Portland-stone flew off, even to the very roofe, where a sheet of lead covering a great space (no less than six akers by measure) was totally mealted; the ruines of the vaulted roofe falling broke into St. Faith's, which being fill'd with the magazines of bookes belonging to the Stationers, and carried thither for safety, they were all consum'd, burning for a weeke following. It is also observable that the lead over the altar at the East end was untouch'd, and among the divers monuments, the body of one Bishop remain'd intire. Thus lay in ashes that most venerable Church, one of the most antient pieces of early piety in the Christian world.
The death toll from the fire remains unknown. Approximately 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 houses were destroyed; 87 of the city’s medieval parish churches were destroyed. The cathedral was a burned out shell. The choir was destroyed, the central tower badly damaged. The nave at first appeared relatively undamaged, but sections began collapsing. At first there was some hope that part of the cathedral could be salvaged, but the fire apparently weakened the building’s fabric to the point where a commission created to inspect the damage declared it to be a ruin.
Map of London showing the extent of the devastation of the great fire of 1666
The ruins of Saint Paul's after the fire drawn by Thomas Wyck
The present day Saint Paul’s replaced the earlier Gothic cathedral destroyed in the fire. That cathedral was built in the 13th century, and augmented in the 14th century. It was a huge magnificent building slightly larger than the present cathedral.
A computer reconstruction of the old St. Paul's Cathedral
A 17th century engraving of the interior of the old Saint Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's on the eve of the Fire with the columned portico and modifications by Inigo Jones
The old Gothic cathedral replaced an even earlier building begun by William the Conqueror also destroyed by fire in the 12th century. Local legend long declared that the cathedral stood on the site of an ancient Roman temple to Diana. Wren never believed that story and disproved it when he built the present cathedral, finding no Roman remains at all as the foundation and new crypt were excavated. The old Gothic cathedral was a huge building topped by a tall spire. The spire caught fire in 1561, and collapsed into the nave, and was never rebuilt. By the time the cathedral burned down in 1666, it was already crumbing from time, neglect, and Reformation era abuse.
After the fire, another legend emerged about the present cathedral. As Wren himself inspected the old cathedral’s ruins, he picked up a stone, and turned it over to see that it was a piece of an old tombstone with the word Resurgam (I shall rise again) inscribed upon it. This word and the mythical phoenix, the bird that rises anew out its own ashes, appear carved in many places on the present cathedral. Wren intended the building to be a monumental embodiment of that idea of resurrection. And indeed history seems to collaborate in that intended role. St. Paul’s great dome became a symbol of the city’s resurrection twice, after the Great Fire and after the Blitz.
St. Paul’s in London is the creation of a single architect, more than any other major cathedral in Europe. Sir Christopher Wren is completely responsible for the cathedral that we see today. He was that rarest of architects who had the great good fortune to see his greatest work completed. He would spend most of his life designing the building and directly supervising its construction.
St. Paul’s made Wren an architect, and one of the greatest architects of the 17th century. Wren had no formal training as an architect and almost no direct experience of construction when he was given the commission to rebuild the building. Wren was a mathematician and astronomer specializing in optics at Oxford and at Gresham College in London. This is not as exceptional as it seems. Architecture would not really become a full profession until the 19th century. Assigning the design of a building to a man of learning was commonplace. Usually the assigned person would delegate the work to a series of specialists, master masons, etc. In Italy, artists usually designed buildings. Wren’s personal interest and initiative in his architectural work was exceptional. Before St. Paul’s, he had limited experience designing the Sheldonian Theater at Oxford and the chapel at Pembroke College. What he knew about architecture was from books. Until 1665, he never traveled abroad and saw any of the architecture he read about. Architecture for him meant Vitruvius’ books, the only literary works by an ancient architect to survive, Sebastiano Serlio’s Treatise On Architecture, and Etienne Duperac’s architectural engravings, especially of Sangallo’s and Michelangelo’s designs for Saint Peter’s. He knew about his great contemporaries, Hardouin-Mansart and Bernini, only by reputation.
His relationship with Saint Paul’s began before the fire. He was a consultant in a project to repair and renew the cathedral. It’s spire was gone, and it was crumbling from years of abuse and neglect from the time of the Reformation through the Civil War. The last major work on Saint Paul’s was by the architect Inigo Jones under the direction of Archbishop William Laud. Laud wanted to restore something of the cathedral’s ancient sanctity. For centuries, the west entrance, the nave, aisles, and close were noisy places used by day laborers to gather waiting for employment. The city’s population began to use the west end of the cathedral as a gathering and trading place. In Europe of the day, this was not exceptional. Archbishop Laud wanted to clear all that activity out of the cathedral, and to make the building more “up to date.” So he hired the only architect in England at the time that had any real direct knowledge and understanding of classical architecture, Inigo Jones. Jones rebuilt the west front adding a large portico of Corinthian columns. He also cased the nave in an awkward overlay of classicizing form over a Gothic building, closing off the outside arcades where day laborers also gathered. This cathedral modified by Jones was the cathedral Wren knew before the Fire.
In 1665, Wren made his only trip out of England to France, officially to do some academic hobnobbing with French mathematicians, but really to see what was being built there at the time. He journeyed to Paris hoping to meet the greatest French Baroque architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the other great Parisian Baroque architect Lemercier, and the great Italian Bernini who was in Paris at the time making a design for the east front of the Louvre that King Louis XIV would ultimately reject. Wren arrived in Paris as a nobody. As far as Mansart and Bernini were concerned, he was an obscure English mathematician. Wren appears to have been a remarkably fearless man determined to meet both of these very famous and arrogant men. He refused to be deterred by their contemptuous staffs. Wren succeeded in his ambition to meet Bernini, and persuaded the great Italian to give him just a few minutes to peruse the designs for the Louvre. Many of Mansart’s and Lemercier’s great Paris churches were just completed. Lemercier’s church for the Sorbonne was almost complete. It is likely that Wren visited many of these including Mansart’s Val de Grace. Seeing a drawing of a dome design and actually experiencing walking through a great domed edifice are two completely different things. Such an experience appears to have changed Wren’s life.
When Wren returned to London, he resumed his work on Saint Paul’s. He presented a proposal to tear down the cathedral’s crumbling Gothic tower, and replace it with a great dome over the transept crossing.
Wren's pre-Fire proposal for a dome on Saint Paul's
Awkward as this seems, he did have a precedent in Gothic architecture. His uncle was the Bishop of Ely, and Wren knew Ely’s cathedral with its famous Octagon lantern tower over the transept crossing well. Wren proposed a classicizing version of Ely’s octagon with a tall dome replacing the old tower and spire as an urban centerpiece. His proposal was a success. The commission recommended it enthusiastically.
The fire of 1666 made all of those proposals obsolete. Wren was in Oxford during the fire and was summoned to return to London immediately to survey the damage to the cathedral and the city.
Wren received the enormous, and thankless, task or rebuilding the center of the city of London within the old Roman walls known still as The City, until recently the most densely inhabited and busiest part of London. Wren originally proposed to replace London’s crowded warren of narrow dark streets with broad straight boulevards modeled after Pope Sixtus V’s rebuilding of Rome, and anticipating Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris in the late 19th century. Claims on city property canceled those plans, but Wren remained responsible for rebuilding the city’s churches destroyed in the fire. Saint Paul’s was to be the great religious centerpiece of a renewed and rebuilt, if not quite improved, London.
Mindful of public expenditures, especially when so many were looking to the government and the crown for relief after the Fire, the commission charged with rebuilding Saint Paul’s at first had something very modest in mind. They proposed to rebuild the cathedral choir and nothing more, hoping an always stingy Parliament would find the cost not too burdensome. Wren decided upon a contrary approach to the authorities. He proposed rebuilding the cathedral according to a bold and spectacular design that would make St. Paul’s into one of the foremost churches in Europe. The money, Wren calculated correctly, would eagerly follow. To rebuild St. Paul’s and the city churches, Parliament imposed a tax on “sea coal,” coal from Newcastle brought by sea and up the Thames.
Wren determined to make a fresh start on Saint Paul’s by planning a dramatic break with the design of the former cathedral.
Wren, The Greek Cross plan
His first design was for a centralized church with a Greek cross plan with four equal arms focusing on a central dome, a design probably inspired by Bramante’s and Michelangelo’s original plans for St. Peter’s.
The plan he submitted to the king and to the rebuilding commission was a modified version of the Greek cross plan. He added a domed extension to the west end creating a more traditional Latin cross plan. This is the Great Model plan, so called after the enormous wooden model Wren had made, and which still survives.
The Great Model, west entrance to the right
Interior of the Great Model looking toward the choir
Dome of the Great Model
Plan of the Great Model
Section of the Great Model plan
This design is a masterpiece, to my mind, far superior to what was actually built. It is a beautifully sculptural concept of vast counterpoints between concave and convex masses culminating in a magnificent high dome. It is as splendid inside as outside, the huge interior spaces come together in a single unified design around the central rotunda. True to classical form, Wren conceived of the building as a single entity whose parts relate to each other organically, as do the parts of our bodies; digit to finger to hand to forearm to arm to body, all belong together and nothing more can be added or taken away without mutilation. As Bramante’s and Michelangelo’s proposals for St. Peter’s were radical breaks with the traditional basilican church format, so was Wren’s proposed design for St. Paul’s.
It was too radical a departure for the Cathedral canons. The king loved Wren’s proposal, but the clergy did not, and they vetoed the whole design just as foundation excavations started. They objected that the design was too “Romish,” and not without some justification since it was inspired by proposed designs for St. Peter’s. The clergy also had religious objections. Wren’s design made the traditional processional liturgy of the Latin rite problematic. There is no clear division between choir and nave as traditional English cathedral design required. Anglican worship required separate parts of a cathedral for Daily Office (the choir) and larger public services (the nave), the legacy of the ties of English cathedrals with monastic communities required separate parts for monks (after the Reformation, for choirs and chapters) and laity. Anglican Christianity claimed continuity with the old medieval Church while embracing aspects of the Reformation. The design certainly offended the more Protestant factions of the clergy while so radical a break with the past complicated those Anglican claims of continuity dear to the more Catholic “high church” factions. Wren was sent back to the drawing board.
The next proposal Wren sent, the “Warrant” design, is not just a compromise, but to my mind, a retreat on all fronts.
The Warrant Plan, elevation and section
Despite his public magnanimity, I think Wren was deeply disappointed by the rejection of the Great Model plan, and it shows here. This plan returns St. Paul’s to something like its pre-fire Gothic form with a very medieval basilican floor plan of bays and transepts, even the old medieval idea of the building as an accumulation of added parts. The proposed dome in this design recalls the long lost spire of the old Gothic building, and more directly reminds us of the Octagon of Ely Cathedral.
The Warrant plan was accepted, and excavations on the foundation began in earnest.
Yet, this clearly isn’t the design that was built.
Despite all the planning and proposals, St. Paul’s in its present form seems to have been designed as it was built. A lot of aspects of the old Great Model plan returned, beginning with Wren’s refusal to build the cathedral in the traditional manner, starting with the choir, and then building westward in sections. He objected that construction would have to stop with each section while money was raised to build the next. The building might never be finished. He had a point. Cologne Cathedral was 4 centuries old when Wren was alive and still 2 centuries away from completion. Over the objections of conservative Anglican divines, he began construction of the whole building at the same time. He changed the plan moving the dome back to the center flanked by a 3 bay nave and a 3 bay choir. He kept the medieval concept of a nave flanked by aisles, but modified that plan in very striking ways. He replaced the old medieval cross vaults with saucer dome vaults, anticipating the dome in the center. Wren argued, with reason, that this design was more stable.
Nave of Saint Paul's showing the saucer dome vaults
He still had to rely on medieval building techniques to hold them up. St. Paul’s uses flying buttresses that are hidden behind a screen wall as high as the ground story aisles. The screen walls are more than an aesthetic expedient. They support the vaults, and more important, carry the outward stresses of the central dome to the rest of the building.
Section of the nave showing the concealed medieval plan within the classical exterior
The concealed flying buttresses of Saint Paul's
Instead of the medieval upward and inward progression of building stories, St. Paul’s exterior becomes a single enormous unified mass, another idea from the Great Model making a return. The windows on the upper floor are not windows at all, but niches above smaller real windows lighting the aisles inside. Wren doubled the exterior pilasters to express the massive forces inside holding up the vaults and the central dome.
The South wall of Saint Paul's; note the niches above on the screen wall with the smaller windows beneath
The west façade is a compromise dictated not by clergy, but by conditions at the quarries. St. Paul’s is mostly built of brick and Portland limestone from Dorset, brought to the site by ship. Wren originally proposed a monumental façade flanked by two massive pillars.
Wren's proposed west facade of Saint Paul's
The west facade as built
Columns and pillars are not posts. They are sculpted entities and must be carved out of a single piece of stone before being divided into sections for shipment. There were no flawless stones that large in the quarry for such massive columns. So Wren extended the doubled pilasters of each story of the exterior across the façade, transforming pilasters into columns.
The bell towers are probably the most successfully inventive parts of Wren’s design.
The South Bell Tower
Baroque design is used here to apply a classical building vocabulary to a Gothic building form. A very Baroque play of masses and volumes around a cylindrical core culminates in gilded Roman pinecones at the tops, emulating Gothic pinnacles. But these in the end serve as foils for the vast simplicity of the great dome.
Exactly how Wren arrived at this final design of the dome is still a matter of dispute. Many drawings and plans for it survive, but none of them are dated. In this crowning part more than any other, the old Great Model design comes back. He returns to his original idea from before the Fire to combine the High Renaissance dome with the English Gothic crossing tower to make the centerpiece of the cathedral and the city.
The dome of Saint Paul’s is in fact many domes in one. The double shell dome originates in Islamic Persia coming to the west by way of Brunelleschi’s dome for Florence Cathedral. Michelangelo and later Baroque architects in Italy and France elaborated on that original idea to create dramatic theatrical effects; for example an occulus of a dome would appear to open, not on the sky, but on the hosts of Heaven. Wren brought this idea to England and stripped it of its theater. The vast circle of the dome itself was all the drama and metaphor Wren needed. He wanted a tall dome on the outside and a vast dome on the inside. He did not want the effect of looking up through a giant chimney, as would be the case if the inner and outer domes were the same height. The lantern sits not on top of the outer dome, but upon a huge unseen brick cone that contains the inner dome. The outer dome is made from sheets of lead over a wooden framework of oak timbers (a little English ship-building expertise used in the dome).
18th century engraving showing a section of the dome revealing the inner domes and the brick cone holding up the lantern
The brick cone to the left, and the outer lead dome to the right with oaken timbers between
Interior of the dome
The "Whispering Gallery" in the dome
The dome is a vast simple form based on Bramante’s design for the Tempietto in Rome, as Wren would have seen it in the pages of Serlio. That in turn was based the ancient Temple of the Sybil at Tivoli outside Rome.
Richard Thornhill painted the inner dome of Saint Paul’s with a huge tromp l’oeil round temple with scenes from the life of Saint Paul in the arches. Wren hated this painting and said so publicly. I agree with Wren, who would have preferred simple coffering, painted or otherwise. There is more than enough drama in the huge volumes of the dome, which overwhelm Thornhill’s painted dramas into insignificance.
Richard Thornhill's paintings in the dome
The apse and choir changed with the changes in Anglican liturgy. The cathedral was finished at a time of Calvinist ascendancy that frowned on the whole idea of sacraments.
The choir of Saint Paul's at the beginning of the 18th century
St. Paul’s originally culminated in a simple Communion table with a tall pulpit in front flanked by choir stalls. Wren built a kind of bridge that divided the choir from the rest of the Cathedral. On top of that was the organ with its pipes, what Wren called “a box of whistles.” The Daily Office took place in the choir, while the nave was used for larger public ceremonies in traditional English fashion.
The nave of Saint Paul's in the 18th century showing Wren's choir screen and organ loft, the "whistle box"
The Catholic revival of the 19th century dramatically altered St. Paul’s choir. The organ and choir screen were removed in the 1860s. The organ was rebuilt on both sides using salvaged parts of the old screen. The liturgical revival was all about approach to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar more than daily prayer. Luckily, the beautiful oak choir stalls, carved by the Dutch/English master carver Grinling Gibbons survive little altered, as do the wrought iron screens made by Flemmish sculptor Jean Tijou.
The choir today with the organ rebuilt flanking the entrance
19th century mosaics in the choir vaults
The choir stalls of St. Paul's carved by Grinling Gibbons in use
The floor of the choir was raised, and in 1883, a huge pink marble altar and reredos was installed, blocking the continuity of the choir. The high church Victorians believed that mystical darkness was more suitable than clear daylight, so most of St. Paul’s windows were darkened with very dark stained glass. The domes of the nave and semidomes in the crossing were covered with Pre-Raphaelite mosaics.
St. Paul's in 1896; note how much the surrounding neighborhood has changed since then
Interior of Saint Paul's photographed in the early 20th century
The 1883 altar and reredos
World War II dramatically altered St. Paul’s again and changed the cathedral’s relationship with the rest of the city. The once despised lead dome now became the very embodiment of the city’s sufferings and resistance to the Nazi assault during the Blitz of 1940, and subsequent air raids and missile attacks. Its looming bulk over smoking ruins testified to survival and promised renewal.
Saint Paul's through fire and smoke at the height of the Blitz
Only the heroic efforts of anti-aircraft gunners and the London Fire Brigade kept Wren’s St. Paul’s from joining its Gothic predecessor. The monument did not emerge unscathed. The north transept was badly damaged. A German shell crashed through the roof and vaults of the choir to score a direct hit on the pink marble Victorian high altar smashing it to bits.
The remains of the Victorian high altar after the Blitz
Restorers used the war damage as an opportunity to return St. Paul’s to something like Wren’s original intentions. Most of the dark Victorian glass not blown out by German bombs was removed. The restorers made the inspired decision not to rebuild the Victorian altar. Instead, they built a baldachin originally designed by Wren out of carved oak over a new high altar.
The post-War oaken baldachin over the high altar
The continuity of the choir was restored and extended to the nave, as was the original brightness of the cathedral’s interior. The apse in the east end behind the high altar was turned into a memorial chapel for American war dead from bases in Britain. A magnificent hand-written and illumined book in a glass case records their names.
The American Memorial Chapel behind the high altar in the apse
The Memorial Book in the American Chapel
Most people agree that Saint Paul’s is a magnificent building. However, it is commonplace to praise its splendor and complain that it does not seem sufficiently ‘religious.” Some critics complain that Saint Paul’s might as well be a great Roman public bath like those built for Emperors Caracalla and Diocletian. I must admit that I bought that line myself as a matter of course for many years. After having visited the place and listened to evensong sung beneath that vast dome, I wonder.
Saint Paul’s is not a place of dark sacramental mystery and was never intended to be such. There is perhaps too much patriotic sentiment in the church for the comfort of Americans (monuments to English heroes everywhere, especially military heroes). Those military saints George and Michael threaten to crowd out old Paul in the cathedral’s chapels and monuments. And yet, it is hard to sit listening to the choir sing psalms while looking up into the vastness of Wren’s dome and not think of God. It may be God as imagined by a 17th century English mathematician, but it is God nonetheless complete with the mysterium tremendum.
I notice that imagery plays but a very tiny and secondary role in Saint Paul’s. Its expressive power is in its architecture, as is the case with a great Gothic cathedral. In this it is very different from Italian Baroque where great architectural expanses remain stage sets for operatic spectacles of painting and sculpture. Wren’s sense of sculpted form is as fine as any Italian architect’s, but without that Italian sense of fluid vitality or spectacle (indeed some of Borromini’s and Gaurini’s buildings seem a little unhinged next to Wren’s architecture). Saint Paul’s as a whole and in its parts almost never focuses upon paintings or sculptures. Wren’s only comments about images in his building are expressions of irritation. He hated Thornhill’s paintings, and he described the sculpted balustrade added to the top story of St. Paul’s against his wishes as just so much fashionable fringe. Works of art, even great ones, fit awkwardly into Saint Paul’s. That is true both of Holman Hunt’s Light of the World and a sculpture by Henry Moore. For all of his admiration of Italian and French buildings, Wren built Saint Paul’s to be a Protestant cathedral, for prayer and meditation upon Scripture. Wren’s was a not a sacramental sensibility. In that he was like many of his fellow Anglicans of the time. Wren intended the cathedral to speak through the abstract language of architecture, not through imagery.
Wren had the enormous good fortune to see his great work completed in 1711. He was in his mid 80s and complained bitterly about the remaining work done without his supervision. He remained a fearless man to the end. He visited the cathedral to inspect the work every Saturday. He had himself hoisted up in a basket to inspect the work high up in the vaults and the dome well into his old age. He faced hostile clerics and a mean stingy parliament that docked his pay by half in 1697, the remaining half to be paid on completion of the cathedral (and in hopes that he would die before that time). Wren happily lived to collect that back pay. He died in 1723 at age 90. For all of the disappointments Wren suffered during the cathedral’s construction, he remained self-possessed and confident. He never saw himself as a kind of artistic visionary with the cathedral as his gesammtkunstwerk. He saw himself as a public servant. If the design needed to be changed, then so be it.
Saint Paul’s will always be a one-of-a-kind monument. Its like will never be built again. But it is the first truly Anglican cathedral.
Sir Christopher Wren came to the field of fire,
And graced it with spire,
And nave and choir,
Careful column and carven tier;
That ships coming up from the sea
Should hail where the Wards of Ludgate fall,
A coronel cluster of steeples tall,
All Hallows, Barking by the Wall,
St, Bride, St. Swithin
St. Catherine Coleman
St. Margaret Pattens,
St. Nicholas Cole Abbey,
St. Alban, Wood Street,
St. Magnus the Martyr,
St. Edmond the King
Whose names chime so sweetly call,
And high over all
The Cross and Ball,
On the Riding Redoubtable Dome of St. Paul.
-- Sir John Squire