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St Paul's Cathedral (part one)
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St Paul's Cathedral (part one)

The inner dome painted in monochrome.

Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you', translates I the inscription above Sir Christopher Wren's tomb in St Paul's Cathedral. It is the most celebrated epitaph in London, for it refers so simply to the prodigious achievement of designing London's cathedral and of seeing it built from start to finish within one lifetime. St Paul's was rebuilt by Wren between 1675 and 1710, and it so happens that one Bishop of London - Henry Compton - was in office throughout those years. The great building was erected to house his throne or cathedra, the symbol of his authority as a teacher of the Christian faith.

St Paul's Cathedral (part one)

The dome and lantern rise above the north-west tower and the west portico; on the apex of the letter's pediment stands St Paul.

Wren was given the opportunity to rebuild St Paul's when the mediaeval building was destroyed in the Great Fire. But he was involved in plans for its reconstruction before 1666. The cathedral had suffered depredations in Cromwell's time and it was gradually decaying because of mediaeval structural deficiencies. Wren was first called in to advise on its restoration in 1663. His architectural career had only just begun at that time, although two years earlier King Charles II had invited him to supervise the fortification of Tangier. Wren was always to have King Charles's support and confidence, and it is much to the Merry Monarch's credit that he should have been on amiable terms with such a competent worthy as Wren.

St Paul's Cathedral (part one)

The interior facing east, with an uninterrupted view to the high altar.

Wren proposed the building of a dome for Old St Paul's early in 1666, but the Great Fire intervened. A completely new building was soon considered necessary. Wren soon became central to the plan for rebuilding. Dean Sancroft wrote to him in 1668: '...you are so absolutely and indispensably necessary to us, that we can do nothing, resolve on nothing without you'. Wren's first design was produced in 1669, but was considered too drastic a change from inherited mediaeval convention. It was superseded by the design of the Great Model of 1673, which was a domed Greek cross. This, too, was well out of step with tradition. A third design, known as the Warrant Design, received a royal warrant in 1675; it was longitudinal, but kept a dome over the crossing. The foundation stone was laid on 21 June 1675, when an old memorial stone inscribed with the word RESURGAM ('I shall rise again') was auspiciously found for the ceremony. Wren was fortunate that the warrant gave him the power 'to make some variations... as he should see proper'. He made liberal use of this power, for the cathedral he completed in 1710 differed considerably from the Warrant Design. The west front and the dome were not finally designed until after 1700. The sum of £738,845 had been spent by 1710, paid for largely by a tax on coal coming into London. Wren spoke of his great work as 'a Pile both for Ornament and Use'.

St Paul's Cathedral (part one)

The inscription above Wren's tomb in the crypt ends with the famous words, 'Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you'.

Although the cathedral has a nave and choir with lower aisles, the outer walls are carried up to the full height throughout. This crucial feature hides the necessary flying buttresses and also makes the cathedral a grander building, providing a mighty base over which the dome can satisfactorily preside. The upper windows, therefore, are blanks. The arched lower windows have cherubs and garlands placed over them. A balustrade surmounts the upper storey, a feature that was imposed against Wren's wishes. The walls are articulated by paired giant pilasters, which are Corinthian below and Composite above. The transepts are given additional prominence by each having a pediment and a semicircular portico. The last motif derives from Pietro da Cortona's church of St Maria della Pace in Rome. The east end has an attic above the level of the balustrade and has columns rather than pilasters. The outer dome that we see covers a cone of brickwork that supports the heavy lantern; the dome within the cathedral is another layer below the cone. Structure is therefore hidden by ornament. The dome rests on a drum whose upper portion, consisting of a ring of oblong windows, is set back above a balustraded colonnade, in which the ring of giant Corinthian columns is interspersed with eight pieces of solid walling enriched with niches. The ball and cross on top of the lantern reach to 112 metres (366 feet). The west front, the most familiar face of the cathedral, has two tiers of paired giant columns unde a pediment, with substantial flanking towers. The lower tier is wider than the upper, and the columns of the upper tier are more widely spaced. The tympanum has a carving of 1706 of the Conversion of St Paul, by Francis Bird, who was also responsible for the statue of St Paul above the apex of the pediment, and for the figures of St Peter and St James (left and right respectively). The west towers receive less attention than Wren's steeples for the City churches, and yet they are substantial Baroque works.

St Paul's Cathedral (part one)

S. £ Dykes Bower designed this splendid baldacchino in 1958, a fitting new focus for Wren's interior.

The plan of the cathedral is this: the west end consists of vestibules followed by a very large bay with elongated flanking chapels. Wren was anxious to give prominence to the west bay in all his designs. The nave proper consists of a short bay with a coffered tunnel-vault, and then three full bays with saucer domes, and finally another tunnel-vaulted bay. The domed crossing follows, which is as wide as the nave and aisles together. The inner dome rests on eight arches, beneath which there is a complex arrangement of lesser arches and balconies. The choir repeats the pattern of the nave, but ends in an apse. There is a clear view to the high altar, over which rises an Italian marble baldacchino by S. E. Dykes Bower, 1958, which replaced a reredos destroyed in the Blitz. It is artistically appropriate and of sufficient size to be the focus of Wren's interior.

St Paul's Cathedral (part one)

John Donne's monument of an upright shrouded figure in the south choir aisle survives from Old St Paul's.

St Paul's Cathedral (part one)

The complex of arches which surrounds the dome.

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