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Monday, February 3, 2020

St. Paul's Cathedral

Night falls over St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Over the past fifty years I've visited several big churches. Now my numerous health problems and my wife (mostly the latter) have forced me to limit my travels to three-hour road trips to the Cleveland Clinic. There aren't many world-class churches along I-75 so it's unlikely I'll visit any more. Starting with the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. some fifty years ago, each, for various reasons, have left a lasting impression. The most impressive was La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, which is not actually a cathedral at all but simply a huge church. Close runners-up would St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris. Strangely enough, the most recent (and final) cathedral I've visited did not seem to me to be all that impressive. St. Paul's Cathedral in London is huge, ornate, and architecturally significant, but it did not seem to me to be in the same class as most of the others.
Wren revised his design for St. Paul's Cathedral numerous times.

Sir Christopher Wren
St. Paul Cathedral is unique due to the fact that, although it was constructed over a period of some thirteen years (1707-20), it was totally designed by just one man, Sir Christopher Wren. Wren came by his commission due to a tragic accident. In the 1666 the Great Fire of London gutted Old St Paul's (below). While it might have been possible to reconstruct it, a decision was taken to build a new cathedral in a modern style. This course of action had been proposed even before the fire. As early as 1661 (before the fire) Wren had planned to replace Old St. Paul's dilapidated tower with a dome, using the existing structure as a scaffold. He produced a drawing of the proposed dome which shows his idea that it should span nave and aisles at the crossing. After the Fire, it was at first thought possible to retain a substantial part of the old cathedral, but ultimately the entire structure was demolished in the early 1670s.

Old St. Paul's Cathedral was originally a Gothic structure.

The result was the present St Paul's Cathedral, still the second largest church in Britain, with a dome proclaimed as the finest in the world. The building was financed by a tax on coal, and was completed within its architect's lifetime with many of the major contractors engaged for the duration. The "topping out" of the cathedral (when the final stone was placed on the lantern) took place on 26 October 26, 1708, performed by Wren's son Christopher Jr and the son of one of the masons. The cathedral was declared officially complete by Parliament on 25 December 1711 (Christmas Day). In fact, construction continued for several years after that, with the statues on the roof added in the 1720s. In 1716 the total costs amounted to £1,095,556 (£161 million or $213,775,800 in 2018) completed within its architect's lifetime with many of the major contractors engaged for the duration.
One of the earliest photographs of the cathedral. It dates from sometime before 1860.
St Paul's Cathedral, London, is an Anglican cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London. It sits on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City Its dedication to Paul the Apostle dates back to the original church on this site, founded in AD 604. The cathedral is one of the most famous and recognizable sights of London. Its dome, framed by the spires of Wren's other city churches, has dominated the skyline for over 300 years. At 365 feet (111 meters) high, it was the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1967. The dome is among the highest in the world. St Paul's is the second-largest church building in area in the United Kingdom after Liverpool Cathedral. Services held at St Paul's have included the funerals of Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher; jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria; peace services marking the end of the First and Second World Wars; the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer; the launch of the Festival of Britain; and the thanksgiving services for the Silver, Golden, and Diamond Jubilees celebrating the 80th and 90th birthdays of Queen Elizabeth II. The cathedral is a working church with hourly prayer and daily services. The tourist entry fee at the door is £20 for adults as of January 2019, (cheaper online). No charge is made to worshippers.
St. Paul's Cathedral after the London blitz of WW II.
During WW II, the iconic St Paul's Survived the Blitz although struck by bombs on October 10, 1940 and April 17,1941. The first strike destroyed the high altar, while the second strike on the north transept left a hole in the floor above the crypt. The latter bomb is believed to have detonated in the upper interior above the north transept and the force was sufficient to shift the entire dome laterally by a small amount. On September 12, 1940, a time-delayed bomb that had struck the cathedral was successfully defused and removed by a bomb disposal detachment of Royal Engineers. Had this bomb detonated, it would have totally destroyed the cathedral; it left a 100-foot (30-meter) crater when later remotely detonated in a secure location Extensive copper, lead, and slate renovation work was carried out on the Dome in 1996 and in June, 2011, a 15-year restoration project—one of the largest ever undertaken in the UK was completed.
Wren's final design floor plan of St. Paul's Cathedral.
In designing St. Paul's, Christopher Wren had to meet many challenges. He had to create a fitting cathedral to replace Old St. Paul's, as a place of worship and as a landmark within the City of London. He had to satisfy the requirements of the church and the tastes of a royal patron, as well as respecting the essentially medieval tradition of English church building which developed to accommodate the liturgy. Wren was familiar with contemporary Renaissance and Baroque trends in Italian architecture and had visited France, where he studied the work of Fran├žois Mansart. Wren's third design is embodied in the "Great Model" of 1673. The model, made of oak and plaster, cost over £500 (approximately £32,000, or $42,000 today) and is over 13 feet (4 m) tall and 21 feet (6 m) long. This design retained the form of the Greek-Cross design but extended it with a nave. Another problem was that the entire design would have to be completed all at once because of the eight central piers that supported the dome, instead of being completed in stages and opened for use before construction finished, as was customary. The Great Model was Wren's favorite design; he thought it a reflection of Renaissance beauty. After the Great Model, Wren resolved not to make further models and not to expose his drawings publicly, which he found did nothing but "lose time, and subject [his] business many times, to incompetent judges". The Great Model survives and is housed within the Cathedral itself.
Structural drawing of Wren's
design for St. Paul's dome.
Another of the design problems that confronted Wren was to create a landmark dome, tall enough to visually replace the lost tower of St Paul's, while at the same time appearing visually satisfying when viewed from inside the building. Wren planned a double-shelled dome, as at St Peter's Basilica. His solution to the visual problem was to separate the heights of the inner and outer dome to a much greater extent than had been done by Michelangelo at St Peter's, drafting both as catenary curves, rather than as hemispheres. Between the inner and outer domes, Wren inserted a brick cone which supports both the timbers of the outer, lead-covered dome and the weight of the ornate stone lantern that rises above it. Both the cone and the inner dome are 18 inches thick and are supported by wrought iron chains at intervals in the brick cone and around the cornice of the peristyle of the inner dome to prevent spreading and cracking. The final& design showed external buttresses on the ground floor level. These were not a classical feature and were one of the first elements Wren changed. Instead he made the walls of the cathedral particularly thick to avoid the need for external buttresses altogether. The clerestory and vault are reinforced with flying buttresses, which were added at a relatively late stage in the design to give extra strength. These are concealed behind the screen wall of the upper story, which was added to keep the building's classical style intact, to add sufficient visual mass to balance the appearance of the dome and which, by its weight, counters the thrust of the buttresses on the lower walls.

The interior of St. Paul's Cathedral as seen from the dizzying height of the dome.
I think one reason St. Paul's Cathedral did not seem as impressive as some of the other churches and cathedral's I've visited was the fact that I was there on a rainy, heavily overcast day. Churches such as St. Paul's need light. Any interior as large as St. Paul's cannot possibly be lit effectively. Add to that Wren's infatuation with the Baroque naturally entails a certain massive "heaviness," with smaller windows and fewer of them than the Gothic or Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia.
St. Paul's Nave from eye level.


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