St. Paul’s Cathedral in London
St. Paul’s Cathedral, a masterpiece by Britain’s master architect Sir Christopher Wren, commands the high ground of London’s Ludgate Hill. The current Baroque structure is the fourth cathedral situated at that location and replaced its predecessor, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Since the time of its first religious service in 1697 (the building would not be completed until 1710), St. Paul’s Cathedral has performed a double duty. It functions both as a place of worship, and when history requires, it serves as a site of official state commemorations—from Horatio Nelson’s funeral to Queen Victoria’s Royal Jubilee.
London’s first Cathedral dedicated to St. Paul was built on Ludgate Hill in 604. The centuries were not kind to it nor to the next two churches that stood there. The structures would in turn be ransacked by Vikings, struck by lightning, damaged and defaced during the English Civil War, and destroyed in a fire that wiped out 80 percent of London. The current Cathedral has not gone unscathed by modern history; it survived bombings during the Blitz.
The multi-talented Sir Christopher Wren—his work in science, mathematics, and astronomy is overshadowed by his architectural legacy—had been involved in repair work for the old St. Paul’s before the 1666 fire. In 1668, he was commissioned to produce a design for a new cathedral. Wren would submit three different plans before his “Warrant” design (so called because it received a seal of approval from the King and from the London and church authorities) was accepted in 1675.
In approving the design, King Charles II allowed that Wren had the freedom to make changes as the architect might find necessary. Taking the King at his word, Wren built the structure that he envisioned, and the building that emerged over the next four decades would be substantially different from that approved third design. Wren added a tall dome rather than the spire of the Warrant design, created a two-story exterior façade, and focused on the interior space the dome provided. The architect did follow the medieval tradition of arranging the nave, transepts, and choir into the shape of a cross.
Always the scientist, Wren (along with his friend and fellow designer and scientist, Robert Hooke) also used the sanctuary‘s construction zone as an astronomical observatory. Construction for the cathedral took more than 30 years, and for much of that time St. Paul’s had no roof. With towers and shafts open to the skies, Wren mounted telescopes and lenses to explore the heavens. Wren’s knowledge of telescopes enabled him to design and create an optical illusion within St. Paul’s—the interior of the dome appears to have an oculus, or aperture, where none exists.
Unlike many cathedral architects, Wren lived to see his masterpiece completed. When he died at the ripe old age of 91, Wren was buried in the Cathedral’s crypt. His simple burial marker reads: “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”). Wren shares his burial space with many other British notables, including Napoleonic war heroes Admiral Lord Nelson and Arthur Wellesley (better known as the first Duke of Wellington and the victor of the Battle of Waterloo), painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, doctor and discoverer of penicillin Sir Alexander Fleming, and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is open to sightseers from Monday to Saturday; there is an admission charge. The Cathedral may be closed for special services or events. If you are up to the climb you can take the stairs to the top of the dome where you can walk all the way around for a great 360° view of London. The photo to the left was taken during the annual Queen’s birthday celebration as several formations of airplanes flew over London. Look close in the larger linked photo to see the people standing at the top of the dome.
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by Katie Calvert