Three Claims

The present St Pauls’ Cathedral has three unique claims to fame. It was the first Protestant cathedral to be built in England; all the medieval cathedrals were originally Catholic foundations. Secondly, it is the first English cathedral to be wholly the concept of one man; Sir Christopher Wren. By contrast, the medieval cathedrals had been designed by, and added to, by a variety of different hands over the many centuries, since their foundation. Thirdly, it is the first English cathedral to be built in a neo- Classical style.

Bishops and Cathedrals

A cathedral is so called, because it is the place of the Bishop’s Chair (“cathedra” in Latin). Londinium was a Roman town, and it is likely that Christians were there from the First Century AD. The first real evidence is the fact that the then Bishop of London attended the Council of Arles (southern France) in AD 314.

Old St Paul’s

In the middle of the 17 Century the Gothic medieval “Old St Paul’s” (2) was in a dilapidated state and by 1661 Sir Christopher Wren had been asked to advise on its restoration and reconstruction. Five years later, the Great Fire of 1666 reduced the cathedral to a blackened shell, so that demolition and a fresh start was now the only option. This was a marvellous opportunity which Wren seized with both hands.

A Classical Design

He produced a number of designs, some of which were rejected on grounds of the size and cost, before the final one was accepted, in 1675. He was given a lot of latitude to change this design, and he made full use of this freedom. He was keen to make a cathedral in keeping with the architectural trend for Greco-Roman classical styles.

Wren had been commissioned to design replacements for the many City churches destroyed in the Great Fire, before he began on St Pauls’ and the spires of these “show his powers of invention in transforming a Gothic feature into a Classical one” (References A).

Spires or Domes?

The crowning glory of the Gothic church or Cathedral was its spire, reaching to Heaven (2), whereas the glory of any neo-Classical building was its dome. Spires were confined to religious buildings, while the dome was common to any splendid building, religious or not. Famous domes include the Duomo (literally “dome” in Italian), of Florence Cathedral in Italy, (4) and that of St Peter’s in Rome (5).

Although Wren had never visited Italy, he had spent time in France and was influenced by the architect, François Mansart, and the Classical enthusiasms of his times. Many of the architects of those days were impressed by the Pantheon (“Temple of Many Gods”) in Rome; still a magnificent building to this day.

One of the interesting features of the Pantheon dome, copied at St Paul’s, is the oculus (Latin for “eye”), a circular hole in the centre of the dome. This hole is open to the sky in the Pantheon, (8) but Wren wisely decided that this would not do in the English climate, and his oculus gives only a view of the brick dome (9) and no rain falls inside the Cathedral.

Constructing the Dome

There are three domes at St Paul’s; the external one on view to anyone in the City, or near it; the interior dome visible to visitors inside the cathedral; and between them the brick dome, known only to architects and the maintenance staff. The cutaway view (10) is excellent but does not reproduce well when reduced, but the sectional engraving (11) by Samuel Wale and John Gwynne, made in 1755, is much clearer. Most Londoners, visitors and tourists do not realise that the dome they see is a timber construction, covered in lead, and so hardly an architectural feature at all.

Church Shapes

The earliest Christians met in secret, because they were persecuted by the Roman authorities, and there were no churches. When Christianity was finally tolerated, in the Fourth Century AD, the earliest churches were rectangular, like any other public building, and had a raised platform at one end. This is the “basilica” form (12). As Christian architecture developed, it branched into two distinct forms. In the East the liturgy, or religious services, were in Greek and the church shape was a four, equal-armed cross, with the principal dome at the centre. In the West the liturgy was in Latin and the church was shaped like a cross with one long arm and three short ones.

At the centre of Christian worship was a stone Altar (12) on the Sanctuary, a raised platform, within the Chancel, an area reserved for priests and their servants. The space occupied by the lay people was often called the Nave, from the Latin word, “navis”, a ship, as its roof appeared like the timbers of an upturned boat.

In building a new Cathedral in a neo-Classical style, Sir Christopher Wren had to take into account, centuries of tradition in church architecture. Educated Christians were well aware that the Classical world of Greece and Rome was pagan, and the Romans had almost destroyed the early Church by persecution. Consequently, many were uncomfortable with the idea of using pagan styles and motifs in a building devoted to Christian worship.

Wren’s Revolution

Over the centuries, the basic Latin cross shape of cathedrals underwent a change towards increasing complexity (13). By comparison, the plan of St Paul’s is far simpler; the transepts have been shortened, and the choir/chancel simplified. It retains the idea of aisles north and south of the nave, but increases the complexity of the porch area. The central part of the design, with its dome, has some of the flavour of the four equal-arm cross of the Greek Orthodox Church plan. Altogether, Wren managed to achieve a most revolutionary design.

The new Cathedral was consecrated in 1697, just 32 years after the destruction of Old St Pauls in the Great Fire. Sir Christopher Wren was fortunately alive to see his building opened for worship, as he lived to a great age, dying in 1723 at ninety-one.

Artistic Responses to St Paul’s

At the time, the poet , writer and antiquarian, James Wright, wrote three sets of verses, “The Ruins”, “The Rebuilding” and “The Choire”, on St Paul’s and he found:

“Without, within, below, above, the eye

Is filled with unrestrained delight”

Although opinions differed on the merits of the new Cathedral, it soon became evident that most Londoners, from the highest to the lowest, took the new St Paul’s to their hearts, and were justly proud of the building. This attitude spread widely across the land, and St Paul’s became a national symbol. Foreign artists came to London and enthusiastically recorded their impressions.

In Canaletto’s view of St Paul’s, and the sweep of the Thames, (16) it is difficult to believe he was not seeing his beloved Venice, with the English Cathedral magically transported to the banks of the Grand Canal. An even more romantic view was provided by Canaletto’s fellow-Italian, Antonio Joli, whose painting (17) dates from much the same period. Even the nineteenth century Romantic painters (18) found St Paul’s a suitable subject.

St Paul’s straddles the top of Ludgate Hill, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was cheek by jowl with the bustling commercial life of the City of London. In those days there were hundreds of skilled tradesmen, carpenters, bakers, cooks, seamstresses, shopkeepers, clerks and small manufacturers, like bell-founders and potters. For all of them, St Paul’s was a familiar presence, and “this was why the Cockneys love it so”, in the words of Ian Nairn, (1930-1983) a percipient commentator on architectural issues. The 18 C engraving (19) and the 19 C Impressionist painting (20) both capture the omnipresent nature of St Paul’s.

St Paul’s as a National Icon

While Westminster Abbey was the scene of Royal weddings and funerals, St Paul’s became the focus for events of national significance. These began with royal attendance at Services of Thanksgiving for the military victories of British forces in continental Europe during the early eighteenth century. Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington are the two best-known national heroes whose funerals took place in St Paul’s in 1805 and 1852 respectively. Both are buried in the great crypt below the Cathedral. There are also memorials here to the composers, Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, writers, Samuel Johnson and John Donne, and figures of national significance like Florence Nightingale, J M W Turner, Lawrence of Arabia, and Alexander Fleming. Among former political leaders who had funerals at St Paul’s, were Sir Winston Churchill, and Baroness Margaret Thatcher.

St Paul’s During WW2

Possibly the most dramatic image of St Paul’s, in its iconic status, is the view (21) captured by professional photographer, Herbert Mason, from the offices of the “Daily Mail”. This was on 29 Dec 1940, during the “Blitz”, or bombing raids, on London during World War Two. Despite the impression given by the picture and story, St Paul’s was seriously struck by bombs on three occasions. On the 10 Oct 1940, a bomb penetrated the roof and destroyed the High Altar, and on 17 April 1941, a bomb landed in the north transept, and blew a hole in the floor, revealing the crypt below.

The most serious was a time-delayed bomb, which landed on the Cathedral roof on 12 Sep 1940. It was defused by Lt Robert Davies and Sapper George Wylie of the Royal Engineers, who were both awarded the George Cross for their action. When detonated safely, the bomb blew a 100 foot (30 m) diameter crater in the ground. Had it exploded in the Cathedral it would have reduced it to rubble.

I want to conclude with a personal recollection of St Paul’s Cathedral. At the start of the Blitz on British cities, in the summer of 1940, the Government insisted that all children must be evacuated to safer places. I left London with my parents and spent the rest of the war in a rural area. After the war, London, like most of the cities of Britain was pock-marked with what were called “bomb-sites”. These were places where bombs had partly destroyed buildings. For safety, the buildings had been completely knocked down, just leaving empty basements and cellars. At the pavement level, pedestrians were protected by a brick wall, about four feet high (1.2 m), preventing anyone from accidentally falling into the site. Needless to say, such sites were easily accessible to older children, who used them as play areas.

The map (23) is a small portion of the area where I lived showing the streets of terraced houses or municipal flats, (black) and the bomb sites (pink) nearby. The entire area was re-developed in the seventies and this street plan no longer exists. Not all bomb-damaged buildings were demolished, but they were usually boarded up, in the vain hope of keeping children out. I can recall exploring and playing in a bomb-damaged cinema, a big luxury Chinese restaurant, a variety of shops and small businesses, and a swimming baths (the pools were empty).

Best of all, was an Anglican church where we climbed up into the small belfry tower and rang the single bronze bell, by swinging the big lead clapper against it. Then the trick was to get down from our 100 foot (30 m) perch and away, before the police arrived to investigate a phone call from an annoyed local housewife. The grey, cold austerity of London in the late 1940s and 1950s is captured well by Ernest Dade’s Impressionist painting (24). The painting is undated and could have been made any time between the 1890s and 1930s.

The first time I visited St Paul’s, in those immediate post-war years, I was amazed by the desolation. All around the Cathedral, for street after street, there were mostly open spaces of destroyed buildings. There never was a time before, and never was a time again, for such an uninterrupted view of St Paul’s, and its dome, like the sail of a great ship riding on an ocean of bricks and dereliction (25).

Since that time, St Paul’s, a great public building, has been surrounded by, and dwarfed by a host of private buildings of greatly inferior architectural merit, renowned solely for their great height. The artist, David Gentleman, displays this trend, (26) but wisely refrains from comment.

A final word on the creator of this featured artwork, Sir Christopher Wren, mathematician, astronomer, and architect, whose tomb is in the crypt, bearing the inscription, “LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS, CIRCUMSPICE”. This freely translates;

“Reader, if you want to see his monument, just look around you.”


A. “British Architecture and its Background”, by John B Nellist, Macmillan, 1967

B. “A History of English Architecture”, by Peter Kidson, Peter Murray and Paul Thompson, Penguin, 1965

C. “Fifty Years in Pictures”, Daily Mail, 1946

D. “Art and History of Florence” by Bonechi, 1988

E. “Rome, Past and Present”, Vision, 1962

F. “501 Must-Visit Destinations”, Bounty, 2006

G. “David Gentleman’s Britain” by David Gentleman, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982

H. Wikipedia article “St Paul’s Cathedral”

I. “Colourful Britain” by A N Court, Jarrolds


1. Interior of the Cathedral dome with eight painted panels by James Thornhill on the life of St Paul (Ref H)

2. A reconstruction of “Old St Paul’s” before its spire fell in 1561 (Ref H)

3. Wren’s Classical spires (Ref A)

4. Duomo, Florence Cathedral, Italy (Ref D)

5. St Peter’s, Rome (Ref F)

6. Dome of St Paul’s (google image)

7. The front of Pantheon, Rome, with the dome just visible at the top (Ref E)

8. Oculus of Pantheon dome, a painting by Giovanni Panini (Ref H)

9. Oculus of St Paul’s dome showing eight light wells and blue decoration of the brick dome above (Ref H)

10. Cutaway view with three domes (Ref B)

11. A sectional view of the three domes of St Paul’s Cathedral (Ref H)

12. Shapes of Churches (Author)

13. A Revolutionary design (Author)

14. St Paul’s seen from the South-east corner (Ref H)

15. The West Front of St Paul’s Cathedral (Ref H)

16. “St Paul’s from Richmond House” a painting by Canaletto in 1747 (Ref H)

17. “St Paul’s viewed from a loggia” by Antonio Joli c. 1748 (Ref H)

18. “St Paul’s from the Thames” by Thomas Homer Shepherd, early 19th century (Ref H)

19. St Paul’s on Ludgate Hill in 1797 (Ref B)

20. 1887 “Evening on Ludgate Hill” by John O’Connor (Ref H)

21. “St Paul’s invincible, islanded in a raging sea of flame” (Ref C)

22. Royal Observer Corps on watch during the Battle of Britain 1940 (Ref H)

23. Bomb sites in a small portion of urban London (Author)

24. Ernest Dade, 1868 – 1935, “St Paul’s from the River” (Ref H)

25. The Ship of St Paul’s (Ref I)

26. St Paul’s, from St Martin’s Le Grand (Ref G)

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