ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL

It is difficult to recognise today quite how revolutionary St Paul’s Cathedral was when it was built. In Italy it would not have raised an eyebrow; since the Renaissance all architecture had been carried out in a classical style. But in England, and in Northern Europe generally, we were much slower to adopt the modern style.

London viewed from the Dome of St Paul's, 970.

London viewed from the Dome of St Paul’s, 1970.

Hampton Court Palace, which was begun almost a century and a half before St Paul’s, was perhaps the most impressive building in England in a post-medieval style of architecture. Nevertheless, it was not cutting-edge design, and appears quite homely compared to the grandeur of Wren’s cathedral. Virtually no churches had been built in England since the Reformation, and any modifications that were carried out to existing ecclesiastical buildings were continued in a late medieval manner. A generation before Wren, Inigo Jones had been the first to introduce a true classical style to this country. The Banqueting House in Whitehall is his best known building, but his church in Covent Garden is just about the only religious building that had been built in the 17th century, until the Great Fire made the rebuilding of London’s churches a priority. The Great Fire of London also provided the authorities with the opportunity to redesign the whole city on modern planned lines. This proved to be too big a step, but at least St Paul’s was to be rebuilt as a worthy centre piece for the city. Although its scale it is now dwarfed by the Shard and the Gherkin among others, it is still a magnificent symbol of London.

The Wren churches, and the slightly later ones built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, were a breath of fresh air, but they were not followed by any more Anglican churches until the nineteenth century. The religious buildings constructed across the country in the 18th century are all Nonconformist chapels. One of the finest examples of a chapel built on classical lines is the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, but there are many others. By the time the  Church of England returned to the drawing board the neo-Gothic style had banished classical architecture.  When Methodism became the great force for change in England the style was a practical form of architecture, neither classical nor Gothic.  The Classical architecture of Wren and the neo-medievalism of Pugin were both shunned by these reformers. Typically the windows of these chapels were round topped, not the pointed arches of neo-medievalism that characterised the Church of England in the nineteenth century. The architecture could hardly be called classical however, and even where the doors and windows of Methodist chapels had slightly pointed arches, the effect was very similar. The idea was to build a solid house of God, rather than to inspire with beautiful architecture.

In 1970 I was studying Baroque English architecture as part of my degree. I planned a visit to the capital from Oxford to view the more unusual parts of Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest work. The Whispering Gallery, which runs round the Dome just below the lights, was open to the public, as I believe it still is; it would cost you an arm and a leg today, but as far as I remember in 1970 it was free. There was a collection box for you to contribute to if you were feeling generous, but there was no set fee.

The Dome of St Paul’s is in fact two domes, an inner one and an outer one. The outer dome is more pointed than the inner one, and the two are held together by chains. As you may see from the photo I took, once I had inspected the inside of the Dome I went outside to view the city from the Stone Gallery, the circular walkway that runs round the periphery of the Dome.

The Dome is an impressive structure, one of the largest in the World. The whole exterior of the cathedral is faced with white Portland Stone, brought from Dorset to the Thames by ship. I had visited Portland Bill a few years earlier with my sister Margaret. There I saw the quarry and the blocks of stone that are still mined there, although now they leave by road transport rather than by sailing barque.

The medieval cathedral was already in decline when it was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666. An earlier fire in 1561 had brought the spire crashing down, and it was never rebuilt. It took nearly forty years to complete the new St Paul’s, and Sir Christopher Wren was hauled up to the top of the lantern above the Dome to celebrate; he was a very old man by then.

When I went to see the cathedral it was a long time ago, but I still have the photos I took to prove I was there that summer in 1970.

JOSEPH MASON
joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF THE PAST

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