Building St Paul’s: The Nation’s Church

Posted By on October 19, 2019


St Paul’s is the place in which we feel what the nation is feeling. And I think we know that, both for celebrations and the sadder commemorations. ‘With this ring’, ‘I thee wed’ St Paul’s has become a focal point for many of our national sentiments, but why do we think of St Paul’s in this way? I think the answer is not just in its great architecture or indeed in Christopher Wren’s design, but it’s also rooted into our history. In 1666, at the moment of The Great Fire of London, it would have been a moment of complete terror, as the fire was coming from the east towards the medieval cathedral that stood here behind us. People were fleeing that way to the river, finding any form of escape that they could. And this appalling, terrible thing for London, was what provided an opportunity for Christopher Wren to be the person who would then propose that he would build a great new cathedral for London. The great fire had left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, it also actually helped wipe out the plague, that had previously ravaged the city, and the new king, Charles II, understood that the demands of the people had to be met. This was a time of cultural liberation and development, there were very significant advances in science, medicine and engineering. Christopher Wren himself was a founder member of the Royal Society. And it was an opportunity for him to demonstrate a new kind of thinking about space and light in architecture – which represented a new kind of openness for the many, and not just for the few. To create this new St Paul’s, he needed to make something that had the manner, the scale of a great medieval cathedral, but he wanted something that felt completely different in terms of its light, its openness, its use of a classical language of architecture – looking back to Rome and Greece – round-headed arches, open windows, none of the kind of tight, Gothic infrastructure that was here in all other medieval cathedrals. And what emerged in his thinking was that the height of the dome, to have a central, dominant feature, was going to matter both for the building of St Paul’s, but also for the skyline of the city. And as he developed that thinking and ideas it gradually became clear to him that it needed to be even higher than he had first thought. And what we’re seeing here, the peristyle of columns running around, that peristyle comes in relatively late into his thinking, but with it comes a great deal of weight, and the lantern on top of the dome that we see, like a little church perched above the dome itself, that lantern is the weight of a whole stone church. There is actually a great iron chain around the dome that Wren put in there to stop it spreading, he was very concerned that the weight shouldn’t allow the dome to spread. So, what we’re actually seeing is the outside of what in fact are three domes. We see the outer lead covering of the external dome, when we’re inside the cathedral we see the painted interior dome, but between it, is a separate dome that does the supporting work, and that dome is an extraordinary feat of building, to create something to hold the weight of the lantern and take that weight and transmit it right the way down to the foundations. And with it, therefore, the supports great buttresses, that are actually now hidden by the side walls on each side of the transepts, there are buttresses that support the weight of the dome. So, for Wren this involved enormously complex engineering. Under the bell tower is one of the most exceptional elements of Christopher Wren’s design. Known as the Geometric Stair, it’s actually built by Wren simply designing something where the treads follow each other up, and the weight of each tread is simply held on the stair tread below. It makes the most beautiful geometric arrangement, and it’s a perfect example of how Christopher Wren as mathematician, great geometric genius, is also the great architect. I think Christopher Wren realised that St Paul’s could be more than just a place of worship, it would be a place of meeting, a place where people gathered, but also, with this great, great dome, would soar above the skyline of the capital, it would embody the optimism of a new nation rising at that moment out of the ashes of the Great Fire. Below us are the crypts, and in those crypts, probably the most famous figure of all, is Viscount Nelson – Horatio Nelson – the hero of the wars against the French in the early 19th Century, and after the Battle of Trafalgar in which he was, sadly, shot and died – he was brought here, and it’s that moment, when Nelson comes to St Paul’s for a great moment of commemoration for the nation, that actually St Paul’s changes. St Paul’s is no longer just a great cathedral for London and the country, it becomes the National Church. And his spirit, his determination, his extraordinary abilities seem, to me, to be also part of the way we think of St Paul’s over this long period. So standing at the west of St Paul’s, looking up at the extraordinary double-portico that Christopher Wren creates, it makes me very aware that while he wanted to make this great cathedral the same sort of shape and scale of a medieval cathedral, he also needed to make a grand frontage that would be here as the backdrop to ceremonies, because it’s coming up Ludgate Hill that we have to think of royal approaches, and I think that for Wren, this is a piece of theatre, it’s a piece of theatre that can allow people to be the participants within the architecture. And it has become the quintessential stage for all kinds of national celebration – tragedy, romance, political drama – they’re all involved at St Paul’s. The building work started in 1675, it was completed in 1711. However, at the end of his time he was actually put out of office – political change, differences of views, the old master being now regarded as maybe too controlling – and he had to actually suffer at the end of his life, watching the cathedral in its final moments being finished off by others. But nevertheless, we know it’s Wren’s building, and we know it’s Wren’s great, great, greatest achievement. As well as being a mathematical genius, and indeed a pioneer of modern engineering, Christopher Wren was very much engaged as somebody politically astute who could gain the resources for the building of the new St Paul’s, and indeed of the city churches. And it was his philosophical approach to a new architecture, to a new type of classicism, that allowed St Paul’s to embody an openness, a way of inviting everybody into this light and airy building in quite a new way. Once, previously, national buildings had been about asserting the power of hierarchy, now there’s a sense of them embodying the openness to the whole nation.

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 1 comment

  1. If you think you already know the story of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, or if you have never read about it or even visited it, don't miss this stunning Video by HENI Talks about one of the most spectacular feats of engineering, wonderfully toured by the British historian and curator, the former Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne.
    This great Documentary brought back wonderful memories of my trips to London. Thanks to all involved !!!

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