Thursday, October 2, 2008

St. Paul’s Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral in the city of London, created by the astronomer, mathematician, and designer Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723), is the crowning work in the large oeuvre of one of the greatest English architects of his time, perhaps of all time. With it, English architecture regained the tradition of construction that it had developed for 400 years, and that had been displaced temporarily by Italian theories of proportion and emphasis upon appearance. Although it clearly drew upon classical and Italian models, Wren’s great church was primarily concerned with space and the structural systems that achieved it.

The earliest church on the site was a wooden structure built in a.d. 604 by King Ethelbert of Kent for Mellitus, first bishop of the East Saxons. It burned down in 675 and was replaced by Bishop Erkenwald in 685, only to be destroyed by Viking raiders seven years later. Again rebuilt, it was again destroyed by fire in 1087. A new Norman church, now known as Old St. Paul’s, was completed in 1240 after 150 years in the building. It was consecrated in 1300. A Gothic choir was added by 1313, and the following year a 489-foot (150-meter) spire was completed.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the cathedral had fallen into disrepair and disuse. In 1633 Inigo Jones, Surveyor of the Royal Works, was instructed to restore it. He had renovated the transepts and nave in the “modern” classical style and added a classical portico to the west front, when in 1642 England was divided by the civil war. Cromwell’s Roundhead troops commandeered St. Paul’s and deployed the nave as cavalry barracks, stabling their horses in the chancel. They dismantled Jones’s scaffolding and sold the timber. During the Commonwealth (1649–1660) little changed and the building was being used as a public market. But in 1662, after the monarchy had been restored, King Charles II undertook its reinstatement as a cathedral. Temporary repairs were made to the choir so that services could recommence, and a Royal Commission was established to determine the structural condition of the building. In 1663 Wren was asked to make proposals for the restoration. His plan, which recommended the continuation of Jones’s program and included his first design for a dome, was accepted on 27 August 1666. A week later the Great Fire swept through two-thirds of London, destroying over 13,000 houses and nearly ninety parish churches. Old St. Paul’s was affected, and at first Wren thought that a new church could incorporate the existing nave walls. But in 1668 some of the masonry collapsed, and it was decided to start again. The Norman church was demolished.

In 1668 Wren was commissioned to design the new St. Paul’s, and in 1669 he was installed as Surveyor to the King’s Works. His original scheme, which can still be seen in the “First Model” of 1670, was approved by the king. By 1673, however, the design was rejected by the church because it “was not splendid enough.” Wren responded with a spectacular alternative presented to the conservative dean and chapter of St. Paul’s. It showed a domed church in the shape of a Greek cross (in which all arms are of equal length). It, too, was rejected by the clergymen, who thought it too modern and too Roman. Wren therefore compromised his ideal design to develop an elongated version—that is, a Latin cross—demonstrated in the so-called Great Model, which gave the churchmen what they wanted: a traditional English church with a spire. Completed in 1675, this Royal Warrant design, endorsed by the king, bore the interesting qualification that gave Wren the liberty to make “variations, rather ornamental than essential.” But Wren knew, as did Charles II, that he in fact had complete license, and he changed the proposed church so much that it bore little resemblance to the Warrant design. He omitted the spire, reduced the length of the nave by three bays, increased the size of the dome, and raised the aisle walls. Construction work began as soon as the first contracts were signed in July 1675.

As it was built, St. Paul’s Cathedral combined a floor plan based on traditional English churches with architectural elements and decorations drawn from Wren’s seven months’ experience in Europe when he fled the plague in 1661. Some writers identify specific Italian Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all in Rome, as sources of inspiration: Borromini’s Church of St. Agnese, Bramante’s Tempietto in the cloister of S. Pietro in Montorio, and Pietro da Cortona’s Santa Maria della Pace. The dome is modeled on the ancient Pantheon in Rome. By 1694 the masonry of the choir was finished, and in 1697 the first service was held in the cathedral. Wren sought the best artists and craftsmen to work on details of the church: the master wood-carver Grinling Gibbons carved the choir stalls, and the wrought-iron sanctuary gates were the work of jean Tijou. But after twenty-two years of building, there was no dome. Wren’s salary was halved until the work was completed. St. Paul’s was finished in 1710, making it the first English cathedral to be completed while the original architect was still alive.
Christopher Wren represents a new kind of architect, or more correctly, the reappearance of the old kind of architect, who was interested in architectural theory but also in the practical issues of design, process, and structure. He was, in short, a modern architect. Although a few of his contemporaries probably had some grasp of theory, none had the training or background that allowed them to develop it in any scientific way. Wren took an active role in the construction of his great cathedral, personally hiring and supervising the workmen, auditing and approving the accounts for materials and labor, and visiting the site each Saturday. Nowhere is his commitment to making architecture better seen than in the brilliant construction of the great dome, then the second largest in the world. It is in fact a triple dome. The outer hemispherical shell is timber framed and sheathed with copper. The inner saucer dome, 111 feet (34 meters) in diameter, begins at 173 feet (53.4 meters) above the floor at the crossing and is decorated with scenes from the life of St. Paul by Sir James Thornhill. At its center an oculus admits light to the interior from the lantern above. Therein lies the genius of Wren: in order to transmit the tremendous load of the stone lantern, reaching to 355 feet (109 meters) above the ground, he constructed a cone of brickwork hidden between the inner and outer domes. Wren is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and his epitaph stands upon his tomb; it reads in Latin Si monumentum requiris, circumspice—If you seek his monument, look around.

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