St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks in London. In photographic and illustrative cityscapes of the capital, St Paul’s is invariably positioned in the centre. The cathedral is so well known, it independently represents England’s famous city.
The beautiful building is admired by thousands of visitors every day, attracting over 250,000 school children per year. For many, to have a photograph taken on the steps of the main entrance is sufficient, however, the interior is something not to be missed.
In order to fully appreciate the magnificence of the architecture and decoration, some knowledge of the cathedral’s history needs to be recognised. Many people know about the destruction of the building during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the current structure is actually the fifth cathedral to have stood on this site.
In 604AD, King Ethelbert of Kent founded the first St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the City of London. At this time, Christianity was still relatively new, therefore the wooden structure was one of the first religious settlements in England. Unfortunately, most likely due to the inadequate building material, it succumbed to fire in 675. Undeterred, the building was re-erected, only to be destroyed by Vikings a few centuries later.
The third version of the church was sensibly built in stone, however, St Paul’s appeared to be ill-fated, suffering another fire in 1087. With the Normans on the throne, those in power were determined to build the tallest church in the world, so construction began on a fourth building. The erection of this unique cathedral took many years followed by an additional 60 to make it even larger.
From 1300 to 1600, St Paul’s Cathedral stood without fatal incident, however, lack of care resulted in a gradual deterioration. Inigo Jones, a notable architect (whose other notable works include the Queen’s House, Greenwich) oversaw the restoration of the decrepit building, but it was doomed from the start with the launch of the English civil war. Plans to continue developing the cathedral were made after the reinstatement of the monarchy, with Christopher Wren drawing out the blueprint, unfortunately, the hapless building was to face another demolition. In 1666, before Wren had the opportunity to start building, St Paul’s was completely destroyed by the infamous Great Fire of London.
Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was a remarkable man of many talents. Now respected for his architectural skills, he was also an accomplished astronomer and mathematician. In fact, he was a professor of astrology at Gresham College in London and Oxford University. His deep-rooted devotion to Christ, as a result of being a rector’s son, and his allegiance to the royal family during the civil war earned Wren the opportunity to work on the prestigious cathedral.
Wren had already completed several commissions in London, including the palaces at Kensington and Hampton Court, therefore Charles II knew he was a trustworthy architect to take charge of London’s greatest building. With a motto “Architecture aims at eternity,” Wren not only focused on the aesthetic appeal but took into consideration the longevity of the construction.
By 1675, Sir Christopher Wren was ready to begin building work. The floor plan was set out to resemble a Latin cross – an indicator of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and the building was to be topped with a dome, mainly to satisfy Wren’s desire.
Initially, Charles II and other influential individuals were set on having a spire atop the cathedral, but due to Wren’s persistence, the famous dome was assembled instead, thus unintentionally creating one of St Paul’s Cathedral’s famous interior marvels: the Whispering Gallery.
The Whispering Gallery, located 30 metres above the cathedral floor, got its name as a result of an architectural fluke affecting the acoustics in the dome. A whisper against the wall on one side of the gallery can purportedly be heard at the opposite wall. Unfortunately, the number of visitors in the gallery makes it impossible to fully test this theory. If the 257-stepped spiral staircase was not too much for you, it is possible to climb even higher. Above the Whispering Gallery at 52 metres and 85 metres from the ground are the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery. These both run around the outside of the dome, providing fantastic, panoramic views across London.
Although the unique acoustic trait may fail to occur, it is still worth the long climb up to the Whispering Gallery. From the balcony, you can peer down at the floor of the cathedral where the main church services are conducted. Depending on which side of the dome you stand, it is also possible to see a bird’s eye view of the nave, north transept and south transept.
The most awe-inspiring sight from the Whispering Gallery is not the view below but the closer view of the painted ceiling of the dome. This, of course, can be seen from the ground, however, the intricate details can be better appreciated from this higher vantage point. Surrounding the entire dome, and made to look three dimensional with the inclusion of painted pillars, are murals to represent the life of Saint Paul.
There is evidence to suggest that Christopher Wren wished the entire ceiling to be made up of mosaics, but, most likely due to costs, Sir James Thornhill (1675/5-1743) was commissioned to provide monochrome paintings instead. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of two famous ceilings that Thornhill was responsible for, the other being the ceiling of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.
Thornhill did not paint alone, instead, he supplied detailed pen-and-ink sketches for other painters to replicate. A total of eight scenes completes the experience of Saint Paul as written in the fifth book of the New Testament: the Book of Acts. A particularly memorable painting is based on an incident accounted in Acts 27 in which Paul has been shipwrecked on the island of Malta. The artist has depicted Saint Paul holding a poisonous snake, which ought to have killed him. His survival convinced the island inhabitants of the existence of God.
Although Wren did not get his wish for the entire dome to be decked in mosaics, the triangular spaces below Thornhill’s work caused by the structure of the dome’s arches, have been filled with the coloured mosaics. Designed by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), these portray four Old Testament prophets (Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah) and the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Again, these can be seen from the cathedral floor, or from a closer perspective in the Whispering Gallery.
It is only natural for a cathedral to be filled with biblical paintings and objects, however, St Paul’s is also famous for a number of burials. The crypt, which can be entered via stairs by the north transept, is home to many graves and statues that honour individuals of significant reputation. The two most popular are the tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson earned his spot in St Paul’s crypt after being killed in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. Despite his demise, Nelson prevented an invasion of Britain by Napoleon and his army. Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, is also a national hero and deserves his granite casket under the cathedral. His army successfully defeated Napoleon at the famous Battle of Waterloo.
A third important thing to locate (no, not the cafe – although do visit that as well) is Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb. This is slightly more difficult to find in comparison to the elaborate memorials of the war heroes. In the south aisle of the Chapel of Faith, set in the Cathedral’s foundations, is a simple stone slab. Initially, this may appear an insult to the great architect and individual responsible for the construction of the long-lasting building, however, written in Latin above his tomb is the epitaph “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” Wren does not need an effigy or ornate tombstone, he is buried in the undercroft of his very own creation.
Other notable memorials around the crypt are for artists and scientists who contributed greatly to society through their work. These include J. M. W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, William Blake, Randolph Caldecott, Sir Alexander Fleming and Florence Nightingale. The latter is one of the very few women to be honoured in such a way at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Memorials in the form of statues can also be found inside the main body of the cathedral. Carved by various sculptors from a variety of stone, an abundance of well-known names and likenesses can be spotted from all corners of the building. Lord Leighton, Lord Kitchener, Samuel Johnson and John Donne are a few examples. In the grounds outside, a gilded statue of Saint Paul and a stone Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the completion of the Cathedral, are located.
St Paul’s Cathedral is also home to other artworks, excluding the memorial tombs and statues. The ceilings themselves are an exceptional feat, decorated with complicated mosaics. These were added from 1896 in order to appease Queen Victoria, who believed that cathedral looked dull and shabby.
Other works to look out for include Mother and Child by Henry Moore and The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt – the altarpiece in the Chapel of Saints Erkenwald and Ethelburga, as well as temporary exhibitions: the Commemorative Crosses by Gerry Judah – in memoriam of the First World War, Tides by Pablo Genovés and Martyrs by Bill Viola.
Of course, everything else in the cathedral is beautiful enough to be recognised as art. From altars and gates to the stone flooring, everything can be appreciated. The current organ is also a sight to cherish. Being the third largest in the United Kingdom, it has 7256 pipes and is decorated with elaborate carvings. Apparently, even the original organ was something special, being the first in Britain to have pedals. The composer, George Frederick Handel, got great pleasure from playing this instrument.
St Paul’s Cathedral is as magnificent as it was when completed in 1711, only 36 years after work began. It has been the location of many ceremonies, particularly the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981. It has also been a place of celebration for the jubilees of both of Britain’s longest reigning queens.
Thanks to Sir Christopher Wren’s durable architecture, St Paul’s Cathedral will hopefully remain standing for centuries to come. Thousands of services can be predicted to take place during the following years, but why wait to experience the amazing building? As long as you are willing to pay the fee, St Paul’s Cathedral is ready to welcome you and reveal its true beauty.
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This blog post was published with the permission of the author, Hazel Stainer. www.hazelstainer.wordpress.com
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon