Architecture of St Paul’s Cathedral
Article By: Francesca Burke
St Paul’s Cathedral has a long history, which is reflected in its design and architecture.
St Paul’s was founded in 604 CE by Saint Mellitus, although the earliest buildings were damaged or destroyed by Viking attacks and fires.
Old St Paul’s Cathedral
It wasn’t until 1087, under Norman rule, that building began on a spectacular cathedral. Now known as ‘Old St Paul’s’, the cathedral stood until the Great Fire of London in 1666. Old St Paul’s took around two centuries to complete and was originally built in the Romanesque style typical of Norman England. Over the years, however, it became a spectacular Gothic cathedral in keeping with a change of architectural styles. Romanesque columns were topped with Gothic lancet pointed arches, and upon completion in 1314, St Paul’s was one of the longest, tallest churches in the world.
Until the Reformation in the 16th century, the St Paul’s was a vibrant Catholic cathedral and held regular mass, saint’s days celebrations and sermons. It was also home to public gatherings, sport, lively trade and used as a thoroughfare! One of the most infamous features of Old St Paul’s was Paul’s Cross, an outdoor pulpit used for lively – and often controversial – public demonstrations of theology and politics. Furthermore, cathedral’s interior was considered incredibly beautiful, with a vaulted ceiling some of the best stained-glass windows in the country.
St Paul’s Walk in the Old Cathedral, from Wikipedia
During the rule of Henry VIII and the Reformation, many shrines and colourful religious images were destroyed. Although Mary I briefly returned the cathedral to Catholicism during her short reign, Elizabeth I had it confirmed as a Protestant place of worship in 1559.
Old St Paul’s Cathedral, from Wikipedia
Dilapidation and the Great Fire of London
A series of disasters befall the cathedral in the 1500s and 1600s. Lightning struck the tower in 1561, setting the steeple and roofs on fire. Renown architect Inigo Jones began restoration work, but the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 prevented completion. After the dissolution of the monarchy, during the Protectorate rule of Oliver Cromwell, the cathedral was dissolved. The Lady Chapel became a preaching auditorium while the nave was used as cavalry barracks. At one point it housed 800 horses!
The monarchy was restored to England in 1660 and St Paul’s became a Church of England cathedral once again. By then the building had fallen into serious disrepair. Architect Christopher Wren was commissioned to improve the building and designed a new domed roof in 1666, but one week after his plans were approved, the Great Fire of London destroyed two-thirds of London, including Old St Paul’s. The wooden scaffolds used for repairs and the thousands of books held in the cathedral helped fuel the fire and ultimately there was no option but to completely rebuild the cathedral.
New St Paul’s Cathedral
Christopher Wren’s dome, from stpauls.co.uk
Christopher Wren designed the new cathedral, which took nine years to plan alone; construction took three decades. Wren ensured St Paul’s was a working cathedral, with designated space for choirs, a treasury, a Morning Chapel and much more. The completed building, in the English Baroque style, provided a symbol of hope and pride for the emerging British Empire and has become an icon of the London skyline. It is the second-largest church building in the UK, after Liverpool Cathedral, and is considered Wren’s masterpiece.
Today, St Paul’s is still a working cathedral and welcomes worshippers and tourists alike. It is used for state weddings and funerals, thanksgiving and memorial services and is frequently seen in films and on television.
Inside the dome and the nave, from stpauls.co.uk