Monday, 29 April 2013

Preview: St Paul's Cathedral

In 1666, some straw in a bakery caught fire. It soon grew somewhat bigger - the city was suddenly ablaze. This was the Great Fire of London, and although loss of life was minimal - officially down at just six people - the city was devastated. Over 13,000 homes, 87 churches, numerous halls and offices in the City of London were incinerated; among these was old St Paul's Cathedral, a version of which had stood on the spot since the 7th Century. The diarist Samuel Pepys passed by a few days after the fire and wrote, "Walked thence, and sae the town burned, and a miserable sight of St Paul's church, with all the roofs fallen and the body of the Quire fallen into St Fayths". It was beyond repair. A new city and a new St Paul's would have to be built. King Charles II entrusted it to one man - Christopher Wren.

Now celebrated as England's most famous architect, Wren was not trained in the profession. Nobody was back then really. Architecture was a gentlemanly activity, a cultured hobby, and Wren had followed his father's interest in the subject. It was just one facet of a variety of interests. In fact, he was an all-round scientist who dabbled in whatever was near at hand, from using telescopic observations to model a head-sized moon to using early microscopes to draw tiny lifeforms. None other than Isaac Newton described Wren as one of the three greatest geometers of his age. It's possible Wren had known Charles II since childhood, as he'd spent most of it in Windsor Castle where his father had been the dean, but he'd first come to Charles's professional attention through his head-sized moon - well, who wouldn't be impressed? By 1661 Wren was involved with repairs of the old St Paul's, which five years before the fire was already falling to pieces.

Old St Paul's was at least the fourth such church to built on the spot - there are such large gaps between historical records that others could have risen and fallen. The first had been around from 604 to 675 before being destroyed by fire. Vikings destroyed the second in 962, and the third was again destroyed by fire in 1087. Even before fire put the fourth  - then the biggest landmark in London - out of its misery, it was requiring extensive reconstruction. Wren had been one of those involved in the planning of this. It was in a terrible state of disrepair, not helped by Oliver Cromwell tearing down statues and using it as a stables and barracks just years earlier. The fire, in fact, simplified matters, as it removed the element of doubt - it became simply a case of tearing the remains down and starting again.

Wren was appointed Surveyor General of the King's Works in 1669, by which time demolition of the old St Paul's was well underway. This in itself was no mean feat and took three years using gunpowder and battering rams. Of course, the building of new St Paul's was just part of Wren's remit - he also had to rebuild the city, and for this came up with an entirely new street plan. Grid-like, it would have transformed the centre of London with monumental city buildings placed at the focal points of converging streets, with nods to  Imperial Rome. Alas - and it's still lamented today - it was not to be. It would have been too expensive and taken too long, but the real reason was that after the fire people started to rebuild upon the old foundations of their homes and workplaces. The citizens of London, for obvious reasons, simply wanted to get their lives back to normal as soon as possible. Future generations and their wistful desire for a more orderly London experience was not really a consideration. Still, Wren had plenty on his hands, and aside from St Paul's was responsible for the rebuilding of 51 churches (sadly, only twelve remaining unchanged today, with the Blitz during World War 2 destroying many). To see how they would all look together, the architect Charles Robert Cockerell drew this handy picture in about 1813 ("A Tribute To Sir Christopher Wren").

After several years of planning and fund-raising (a tax on coal imports, and a donation/loan scheme provided the majority of cash), the foundation stone was laid in June 1675. 33 years later, in October 1708, with Wren 76 years old, the last stone was laid. The cathedral was was officially deemed complete on the Christmas of 1711, although finishing touches continued for another decade. Wren's entire architectural career was centred around it. St Paul's Cathedral was a landmark, not just for London but for English architecture. The first domed building in England, it was the masterpiece of the age, a unique structure without architectural precedence, and although influentual, never repeated. Rare was a cathedral built by a single architect in his lifetime - the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe could take centuries to build; indeed, the roughly contemporary St Peter's Basilica in Rome took twelve different architects 145 years to complete. And it's made all the more impressive that Wren only ever went abroad once, in his youth to France, with his knowledge largely based upon reading. In his whole life, nobody in the country was at his level - he was the only man for the job. A good thing then that he didn't have his own way - Wren later complained to his son that King Charles II should have put him in medicine instead, as he'd have made a better living.

None of this came cheap, mind you. The price of construction by 1710 came in at £738,845 5s 2 ½d, and including the interest on loan paybacks, by 1716 was £1.15 million (£1,157,782 10s 2 ½d if you want the precise figure).  This is an astonishing figure for its time, in today's money perhaps worth over £1 billion.

Was it worth it? Can you put a pricetag on something timeless? St Paul's has been at the heart of English - and now British - public life since. It is the nation's church. The funerals of some of the country's most famous people have been here - Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, and just recently Margaret Thatcher - as well as the weddings of Prince Charles and Diana. As a matter of fact, my cousin got married a few years ago, and the option of a wedding in St Paul's was available to her. This was due to her father, my uncle, being awarded an OBE some years ago, and anyone who's received such a royal award is eligible for a St Paul's wedding, as well as their children. Why on earth didn't you take up the offer, I asked her. Well, it turns out that for non-royalty, weddings take place in a much smaller chapel in the crypt, and my cousin deemed a wedding in the basement of St Paul's, surrounded by tourists with their fingers pressed keenly on their phone-cameras, to be a little less special than the Highland countryside wedding she chose instead.

Wren died in 1723, aged 91, apocryphally after catching a cold upon a winter visit to his cathedral. His funeral was, appropriately, at St Paul's, and his body lies there now, in a cathedral crypt. A simple black marble floor slab marks the spot, with the lack of an ornate sculpture marking the spot explained by a later inscription, added by his son: "Lector si monumentum requiris circumspice" - "Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you."

I've seen St Paul's many times, though have only visited once, some years ago. Hemmed in by other buildings, it doesn't have much space to breath, which was why I remember being especially impressed upon visiting the interior. The dome and the view from it were particularly glorious. Since then, it's finished a 15-year, £40 million clean-up that has left it in immaculate condition, and in its best shape for 300 years. "Whether a Wonder" is a question never far from me, and it's probably true that St Paul's won't break into my top 7, but it's also true that it's iconic, important for its city and nation, and possessing a special kind of beauty - all attributes of the best Wonders out there.

I'll be visiting St Paul's in June this year, although might save the final visit for later in the year so that I can manage a Sunday service, for I feel that, given the possibiliy, it's always best to visit a Wonder when it's fulfilling its intended role. Therefore a review will follow at some point, with further details as well as my own impressions.

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