The 2012 Olympic Games end today, but before the flame goes out at the closing ceremony, take one last look at an iconic piece of the London skyline: Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The current structure, built between 1675 and 1710, is the fifth cathedral to have stood on the site since 604, and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Since its completion, it has become a symbol of the city and a space for marking momentous occasions in Britain’s history, including Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding to Prince Charles.
1. Wren is best known today as the celebrated architect who designed 51 churches after the Great Fire, including Saint Paul’s, but his legacy and background actually extend beyond architecture. He was an Oxford-educated scientist, trained in physics, mathematics, and astronomy, whose interest in architecture stemmed from his explorations in engineering and optics. He was a professor of astronomy in London and Oxford and was a founding member and president of the Royal Society, the British national academy of science.
2. Wren went through numerous phases of sketches and models over the decades to arrive at the current incarnation of Saint Paul’s. In fact, in 1697, the House of Commons suspended half of his salary to “encourage” him to speed up the process. During his involvement with the project, Wren considered many different sources of inspiration: Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome, Bramante’s and Michelangelo’s contributions to Saint Peter’s Basilica, Inigo Jones’ previous designs in London, and Jules Hardouin Mansart’s Invalides in Paris, to name a few. Ultimately, he was able to fuse Bramante’s Classicism and Mansart’s Baroque to create a unique aesthetic.
3. The dome is perhaps the most iconic feature of Saint Paul’s, and it is actually three domes in one. This allows for a majestic and impressive exterior dome, punctuating the skyline of London, but also an interior dome suited to the proportions of the internal architecture. Towering at over 365 feet, it is one of the largest domes in the world, and 259 steps up is a unique feature known as the Whispering Gallery. Messages whispered at one point of the gallery will reach the ears of people standing straight across from that point. This is because the sound waves proceed from a source placed close to the wall and cling to the wall’s surface as they creep tangentially along it to their destination.
Image Source and Citations:
Summerson, John. Architecture in Britain: 1530—1830. Ninth edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.