By indexer
131 days ago

St Paul's Cathedral, London

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The itinerary of every tourist who visits London should include St Paul’s Cathedral. This is the seat of the Bishop of London, and the place where many great state occasions take place, such as royal weddings and celebrations, and the funerals of famous people.

However, what you see today is not what the architect, Sir Christopher Wren, originally planned. A scientist by training, Wren’s experience as an architect consisted of only two buildings, but one of those was the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, a circular domed building, modelled after a classical Roman design. He was also a great admirer of St Peter’s Basilica at Rome, with its massive dome designed by Michelangelo.

Not surprisingly, when it came to submitting designs for the new St Paul’s Cathedral, a dome was always going to be a prominent feature. Indeed it was only a matter of days after the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed Old St Paul’s and much of the surrounding city, that 34-year-old Wren presented his first ideas, leading some cynics to wonder who really started the fire! King Charles II quite liked Wren’s plan, which was to rebuild the whole area on a grand classical plan with broad avenues, but this was too radical for most people, especially as the pressing need was to build new houses as fast as possible.

Plan B consisted of a cathedral in the shape of a Greek cross, surmounted by - you’ve guessed it - a massive dome. However, the clergy objected to this as being too “Romish”, meaning “Catholic”. If you visit the Cathedral today, one thing you can see (by appointment) is a scale model of this design, and decide for yourself if this would have been better or worse than what you see today.

Plan C was therefore a compromise. Wren could have his dome, but a small one, please, and surmounted by a tall spire, which was the dominant feature of the old cathedral. Wren eventually got to work in 1675, nine years after the fire, and proceeded steadily to build the walls. King Charles had given Wren a little leeway, in the shape of a clause in the contract that allowed for “variations, rather ornamental than essential”. Wren took this to mean that he had virtual carte blanche to do what he wanted, but he erected screens around the walls so that prying eyes could not see what he was up to. When the screens came down, it was too late for anyone to change was what obviously under construction, namely a huge dome in place of a spire, as well as several other neo-classical (and thus pagan) features that the clergy would never have sanctioned.

From beginning to end, St Paul’s took 33 years to build, which was a remarkable achievement in itself. By the time it was finished in 1708, King Charles was long dead, which is why the statue outside the cathedral entrance is of Queen Anne. The West Front is impressive in its own right, being based on a classical temple design, with a double colonnaded portico, flanked by towers, and a pediment displaying in stone the conversion of St Paul.

You will also be struck by the whiteness of the stone from which St Paul’s was built, and which has recently been cleaned. This is Portland stone, one of the world’s finest building stones, brought by sea from Dorset to the Thames by barge. If you visit Portland today you can see where the blocks of stone were lowered onto the barges, and there are even a few blocks lying around that were rejected as being sub-standard.

Inside the nave, you will be struck by how light and airy the space is. There is no “dim religious light” here, and there is as much plain glass as stained. There are also no pillars or screens to block your view along the length of the building, which comprises one continuous space. The only pillars in the building support the arches of the broad aisles and the dome.

There are many memorials to famous people in St Paul’s, some of which were rescued from the ruins of the old cathedral. These include a memorial to John Donne, the poet of “no man is an island” fame, who was also Dean of St Paul’s. Prominent memorials include those of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Most of the memorials will be found in the crypt. However, only a plaque commemorates Sir Christopher Wren. This reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”; “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you”.

American visitors will almost certainly want to visit the American Memorial Chapel in the apse behind the High Altar. Although St Paul’s escaped relatively unscathed from the wartime bombing that created a second “Great Fire”, the apse was one part that was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. This chapel contains the roll of honour of 28,000 American servicemen who died during World War II whilst stationed in the United Kingdom.

The choir stalls are worth a second look, as they were carved by Grinling Gibbons, Britain’s greatest ever woodcarver. Gibbons also decorated the casing of the organ, which was once played by Mendelsohn.

However, the outstanding feature of St Paul’s has to be the dome, which is the world’s second largest after St Peter’s. You can stand at the centre of the cathedral and look straight up above you, nearly 200 feet, bearing in mind that those relatively slender columns on either side of you are supporting a total weight of 65,000 tons! Or you can make the climb up a series of staircases to the top of the dome.

259 steps up, you come to the Whispering Gallery, from which you can look down into the cathedral interior. The peculiar geometry of the dome means that words spoken in an ordinary voice on one side of the gallery can be heard perfectly clearly on the far side, 112 feet away.

Keep going upwards, and at 378 steps you reach the Stone Gallery that runs around the base of the dome itself, above the colonnade. From here, at 173 feet above floor level, you get a wonderful, relaxed view over London.

The dome is really three domes, with a conical brick structure sitting on top of the inner dome and supporting the wood and lead fabric of the outer dome. A series of staircases between the cone and the outer dome allows you to reach the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome, just below the ball and cross at the very top. This is 280 feet above ground level and you will have climbed 530 steps to get here. The view from here is amazing, but there is not a lot of room at this level and your visit may have to be brief. Whether you would have fancied being hauled up to here in a basket from street level, once a week, is another matter. This is what happened to Wren in his later years as he inspected the work in progress, and in 1708, at the age of 76, he witnessed his son putting the final stone in place.

When I first visited St Paul’s, more than 40 years ago, it was possible to go even higher, into the golden ball that supports the cross, but this is no longer allowed. At that time, St Paul’s, at 355 feet, was the tallest building in London, but it has now been outstripped by several buildings in the “Square Mile”, which is the name given to the Central Business District that is only about a mile away.

On one of my visits some years ago I came across a cathedral guide who was clearly fed up with being asked questions all day. In the Whispering Gallery, a party of schoolchildren were clustered round and one of them, gazing up into the interior of the dome, which is covered with murals depicting incidents from the life of St Paul, asked, “How did they get to do those paintings, all the way up there?” The guide replied, “Long brushes”. I’m sure Sir Christopher would have been amused.
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milenazoran Great article!
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