Christopher Wren, Saint Paul’s Cathedral

Like a phoenix, this church rose from the ashes. Wren’s enormous dome was the first of its kind in England.

Christopher Wren, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, begun 1675, completed 1711, London

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. This huge church maps so beautifully to the history of Britain.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] The first church was built here by the East Saxons in the early 600s.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] They would have been just recently Christian.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] Then that church was burned down, and another church was built, which was destroyed by the Vikings during the Viking invasions.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] Then that was replaced by a church that was built by the Normans after they invaded from France in 1066, and that church survived until the 17th century.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] At that point, it really wasn’t in good shape. The English Civil War had just happened, the Reformation had happened. In fact, during the Civil War, the church was used as a stable.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] So horses were kept here.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] And apparently, there was a market here and a road running through the transept.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] The church was in tremendous disrepair. When the monarchy was restored and Charles II took the throne, he saw this church as an expression of his authority as king and wanted to see it restored as well.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] Christopher Wren, who was at that point a professor of astronomy at Oxford University and a scientist…

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] He was a mathematician, an overall brilliant Renaissance man.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] Charles II called on him to restore the church that was here and to rebuild parts of it. In 1665, Christopher Wren visited Paris. He had an interview with Bernini, who was there to consult about the architecture of the Louvre. He came back to England wanting to replicate the grand classical style that he saw in Paris, and he came back armed with engravings.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] That was important because those engravings showed not only the great architecture in France, but also the great architecture in Italy. Italy was a country he did not visit. Nevertheless, he understood the architecture that was being produced there.

[1:52] We think that there are direct references back to, for instance, Michelangelo’s dome at St. Peter’s and some of the designs of the Louvre in Paris, as well as work by Borromini and some of the other great architects of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] Although Wren was asked to supply designs for rebuilding and restoring this church, there was a great cataclysmic event that allowed him to entirely rebuild it, and that was the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] London was at that point dense with small wooden houses. There had been a long, hot, dry summer and there was also a strong wind. This made what was initially a small fire grow uncontrollably and was not put out for between four and five days.

Dr. Harris: [2:36] It destroyed most of what we think of as the city of London. That is, the oldest heart of London.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] The medieval city of London was gone.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] The fire destroyed more than 13,000 houses, 87 churches, as well as the church that was here, what we now refer to as Old St. Paul’s.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] It took years for the city to recover. Wren was brought in to the ruins of the church to see if it could be saved. Ultimately, he said no. The old Norman church was taken down and Wren was able to reconceive the church from scratch as well as reconceive it within the fabric of a city that he also sought to design.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] Wren reconceived a new city of London with wide streets and boulevards. He didn’t get to build that city, but he did get to build St. Paul’s.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] As well as dozens and dozens of parish churches that dot the city of London today.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] Almost 100 churches in the city of London alone.

Dr. Zucker: [3:30] Although he was not an architect that was able to completely reconstruct London from whole cloth, he did have a major permanent impact.

Dr. Harris: [3:38] Standing here, it’s impossible not to think about the church that Bramante conceived in Rome for the Vatican, the new Church of St. Peter’s. It reminds me of that because of the scale of the building and the classicism of the building.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] If Wren had had his way, one of his initial designs was even more closely aligned with Bramante. It was a Greek cross — that is, instead of it being originally conceived of a basilica with a long nave, and in this case, with a long choir, it was equidistant on all four protruding sides, with a dome in the center.

[4:13] Wren was fascinated by the symbolic power and with the majesty of the dome and would build the first great dome in England.

Dr. Harris: [4:21] It rivals St. Peter’s in its size, it rivals other great domed buildings like Hagia Sophia and the Pantheon in Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [4:29] Or Brunelleschi’s great dome in Florence. This dome is enormous, and it actually dwarfs, in some ways, the rest of the structure. The architecture of this building is a kind of late Renaissance/Baroque structure that is borrowing both from the Italian Renaissance and, in turn, from antiquity.

Dr. Harris: [4:45] That first idea of Wren’s, to build the Greek cross, a cross with equal arms, was very classical in its inspiration, but Wren was not allowed to build that. The clergy here were not happy with the idea of a church that didn’t look like a traditional English church. They wanted something that was more traditional, something that took the shape of a basilica with a long nave.

[5:07] Wren ended up building something that was somewhat of a compromise. It has the enormous dome that he wanted; in many ways, it has the feel of a centrally planned church because of the enormity of the dome over the crossing but the church officials did get that extended east end, the choir that they wanted, and they did get an extended nave toward the west.

Dr. Zucker: [5:28] But Wren’s will really dominates on the exterior of the church, which is so classicizing, and makes a real effort to hide some of the more medieval structural elements of the church to create a seamless classical exterior.

Dr. Harris: [5:42] Wren relied on flying buttresses, but as you said, he covered them up. Obviously, foremost on Wren’s mind must have been how to support a dome of this enormous width that must have an enormous weight.

Dr. Zucker: [5:55] If you look closely at the crossing, you can see vast piers. These are solid masonry structures that really do the weight-bearing of this dome, but as you go up, this dome itself is more complex than it seems. There are three structures here.

[6:09] When you look up at the dome from below, you’re seeing a masonry dome, but that’s doing nothing but supporting itself, because when you look at this building from the outside, you also notice that there is a very high lantern atop, which is also masonry, and that sits on what is in fact a lead roof.

[6:24] When you look at a cross-section, what you’re seeing is, first, the masonry dome, which you see from underneath. Then there’s a conical brick wall. It’s about a foot and a half thick, and that is built to support that masonry lantern on top. Above that, the outer shell is made of lead, which is supported by timbers.

Dr. Harris: [6:43] There are also iron chains which circle the dome, which work to support it.

Dr. Zucker: [6:48] You can almost think of it as a belt that’s tightened at the bottom of the dome itself, to keep the weight from pushing outward with the lateral thrust that is a real concern any time somebody builds an arch or a dome.

Dr. Harris: [7:00] I think we’re so used to seeing domes that it might be hard to imagine how amazingly beautiful and magisterial this looked when it was first raised.

Dr. Zucker: [7:09] In so many ways, this church is a negotiation between officials of the church and the architect, the needs and expectations of the monarchs that ruled when this church was being built, but also, that had to do with the very core use of this building.

Dr. Harris: [7:24] This was built within a century and a half of King Henry VIII breaking away from the church in Rome, from the papacy, and establishing the Church of England. What we’re looking at is a building that embodies a new type of church for a new Church of England.

Dr. Zucker: [7:43] We’ve just stepped out of St. Paul’s Cathedral in order to look at the south transept from the outside. In the pediment, you can see a large bird. This is meant to represent a phoenix, a mythological creature that was believed to live for a very long time.

[7:57] At the end of its life, it was burned until there was nothing but ashes, and then a young phoenix would arise, and so it had to do with this rebirth from fire. Of course, what a perfect metaphor for this church.

Dr. Harris: [8:08] And for the Christian idea of the Resurrection, generally, of life after death. There’s a special story that goes along with this that has to do with Sir Christopher Wren. When he was planning the cathedral, he marked out the center of the dome and asked a workman to bring him a stone to mark that exact center.

[8:26] The workman brought him a stone. When Wren turned it over — this is all according to legend — on that stone, which turned out to be a gravestone, was the word “resurgam,” which means “resurrection.” It’s a common word we see on tombstones.

Dr. Zucker: [8:40] In Latin. That word can be found inscribed just below the phoenix on the transept.

Dr. Harris: [8:46] We have this idea of Christian resurrection, but also the idea of the resurrection of this church after the Great Fire in 1666.

[8:54] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Christopher Wren, Saint Paul’s Cathedral," in Smarthistory, July 31, 2017, accessed June 25, 2024,