Monday, July 26, 2010

St. Paul’s Cathedral: A Search for Inspiration

For there, above my head, rising with glorious disregard from a low jumble of roofs and smoking chimneys, was the dome I had seen from Hampstead, only now it soared before me, its vaulting magnificence held by a vast coronet of pillars. The columned lantern at its summit reached upwards into the smoke-bruised sky…There was nothing of supplication in its appeal to Heaven, nothing of the humility before God so beloved of the Bible…It rose from the mud as a magnificent testament to the boundless ambitions of men, realized in all their inexorable glory.

This passage from the Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark, is a description by Eliza, the protagonist, of her first viewing of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1718, Eliza arrives in London as the maid to an apothecary. The position had been arranged for her by her mother and the family of the father of her unborn child, a wealthy merchant’s son, to smooth over the scandal of their attachment. Eliza finds herself in the clamor and chaos of eighteenth-century London struggling to free herself and to survive, with a view of the dome of St. Paul’s as a source of salvation.

After the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed most of Central London, Christopher Wren (1632-1723) dominated the rebuilding of the city, and English architecture, for the rest of the century. His major and most famous project was rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the city.

Eight years after the Great Fire, the ruins of St. Paul’s original structure had not been replaced or restored. Attempts to salvage the burned-out medieval church failed. Wren began demolishing the old building to make room for the new. The first stones were laid in the summer of 1675 and the last 35 years later.

For a faith with a profound distrust of Catholicism, Wren drew upon monumental Catholic examples in his design for St. Paul’s as the cathedral of the Diocese of London. As similar to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s has a long nave, short transepts with semicircular ends, and a domed crossing. Commanding the city’s skyline, the dome for St. Paul’s has an interior masonry vault with an exterior sheathing of lead-covered wood, similar to the dome of the Florence Cathedral, and crowned by a lantern. Paired Corinthian columns line the main west front. The tremendous size of the Cathedral, complexity of form, and triumphant verticality make it a major monument of the English Baroque period.

Wren returned to England after travels in France in the 1660s and brought with him architectural books, drawings, engravings, and a great admiration of French classical Baroque design. St. Paul’s was to be the central point of Wren’s visionary redesign of London, where streets were to be extended from it. His artistic vision was to crown London’s skyline with a great domed church like the great European cities. Wren envisioned a modern European city with a series of intersecting avenues. But it was not to be had and the city remained along its ancient topographical lines.

The sheer enormity of St. Paul’s must have struck the everyday eighteenth-century Londoner with such awe at the ability and modern power to create such a building. In a time when life was dangerous, poverty was rampant, and destitution was a reality, the solidity of St. Paul’s Cathedral hopefully provided inspiration and hope as “as a magnificent testament to the boundless ambitions of men” to many, as it did for Eliza.

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
Art History by Marilyn Stokstad

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