Appreciation of St Pauls Cathedral, Academic Paper, University of Oxford London, UK
Updated: Nov 9, 2022
St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, UK. Today's building, constructed by the astronomist, scientist and architect Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in 1710, is the 5th version of previous buildings that have stood on the same site, the first originally dating back to 604 AD and represents the seat of the Anglican Church today.
The reason I have chosen this particular building is that it represents a crossroads in architectural style for England, and was constructed after a period of political and social upheaval, the end of a republican government and the start of the restoration of the Crown under the Kingship of Charles II after the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658.
Because of this, the building's style was influenced by a number of different movements from Late Renaissance, that was the dominant style in 16th Century Europe that later developed into Baroque and English Baroque, seen in St Paul's construction and also including neo classical elements. The building also gave the opportunity to Wren to reinforce the authority of King Chales II as King of England and reinforce a new era in English History.
Definition of Baroque
The Baroque architectural style has its origins in Catholicism, theatrics and expressionism, its form came about originally from the earlier renaissance style, elevating and exaggerating domes, colonnades and pediments into a form to glorify and elevate catholic churches in Europe as a way of rebellion against the protestant church and the reformation. Elements of curved lines, the use of ellipses, spirals and polycentric curves, are some of the features seen in integrating art, sculpture and architecture together.
Fig 1 St Pauls West Front demonstrating restrained baroque decoration © Alec Boreham
Evidence of St Paul's Style
At first glance, St Paul's west facade has many baroque features (Fig 1). There is rich, but constrained decoration on the lower portico of a frieze of garlands, cherub heads and trumpets linking classical Corinthian pilasters that follow around the north east and south facades, the use of the classical orders are in itself typically used in the baroque style.
Six paired Corinthian classical columns provide a dramatic and theatrical entrance to the West facade of the Cathedral, four pairs above with a triangular pediment on top give an ascending triangular impression. There are echoes of St Peter's Basilica in Rome in Wrens Design with paired Corinthian columns adoring the dome, St Peter's being of a Baroque construction. Wren also had visited France in 1665 and met Gian Lorenzo Bernini, an Italian sculptor and architect, some of his buildings, especially the facade of St Andrea al Quirinale (Fig 2) has elements that echo the south transept and portico of St Pauls with a semi circular corinthian columned porch topped again with a triangular pediment. And as Sutton (1) indicates, the transept ends of St Pauls also bear a resemblance to S.Maria della Pace, designed by Pietro Da Cortona, a predominantly baroque architect and painter.
Fig 2 Facace Sant'Andrea al Quirinale in Fig 3 Sant'Agnese in Agone facade in
Rome, Italy Rome, Italy
Other features of the west front of St Paul’s that would indicate baroque influences are the twin bell towers that mirror themselves on both sides as does the whole of the west front. There are similarities to a number of Italian Baroque Churches and buildings including Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza by Francesco Borromini in Rome, Italy showing similarities to the designs of St Paul's two bell towers with double classical Corinthian Columns. Sant'Agnese (fig 3) in Piazza Navona also in Rome, Italy also feature the same twin towers and classical features, and Chiesa di Sant'Alessandro in Zebedia, Milan designed in a Greek Cross Plan, also with twin towers.
More specifically, Wren's original plan for St Pauls was dramatically demonstrated by the commission of an intricate and detailed model of his plan for the cathedral, built in 1672, later to be known as the Great Model. This Model was directly inspired by the traditional Greek cross ground plan design, very similar to Bramante's St Peters ground plan mentioned above and also of some of Gian Lorenzo Bernini churches, specifically the Santa Maria delle Carceri.
Support for the Great Model came from royal patronage, King Charles II, However, funding for the building came from the Royal Commission, members of which were protistant in belief, meaning they were against any Catholic or Papist influences. The order in which the building was to be constructed also needed to be in a way that services could be held in the east part of the church as it was being built, which was not possible if the Greek Cross plan was used. Therefore a compromise was reached by Wren giving the clergy what they required, using a christian cross with a longitudinal nave and choir, this was later to be known as the Warrant Design. (fig 4)
Fig 4 Cross Section of the Warrant Design showing a smaller dome with Gothic style spire
Obviously the dome of St Paul's is its most dominant feature, it is not hard to compare how similar Wrens dome design is to St Peter's Basilica in Rome, more striking when you look at Wrens original vision of the Great Model with windows three quarters up the top of the dome allowing in light, which can be seen on the dome of St Peters today, but later modified by Wren in the original design using lead cladding and a timber construction with space at the top, close to the lantern that crowns the dome.
Again, plans for the dome, as seen in the original Warrant Design prints show a much smaller sized dome topped with a gothic style spire, there are historical records from Wrens family that mention King Charles allowing Wren some artistic licence by deviating from the final approved Warrant Design to allow the laying of a more substantial foundation and adjusted the isle width and strengthened the crossing piers meaning that Wren was determined to allow his original Dome design to be placed in the modified plans approved by the Royal Commission.
Again there are references to Italian Baroque Styling in the dome itself, Summerson (2) compares Bramante’s Tempietto to St Pauls dome, upsized from 16 concentric columns to 32, needing Wren to reinforce every 4th intercolumnar space due to the size and weight of the enlarged dome, Bannister Fletcher (3) also mentions this intercolumniation and refers to this as an asset giving strength and solidity that was lacking in another baroque building dome, that of the Pantheon in Paris, constructed by Jacques Germain Soufflot a Neo Classicist French architect, as Oscar Wild once said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and Summerson later agues this for the Pantheon, lacking gravity with Soufflot trying to purify Wrens original design.
Fig 5 Cross Section drawing of St Pauls Dome showing 4th intercolumniation, lead, wood and masonry outer and inner dome and reinforced crossing piers and columns to support the weight of the dome
Reasons for Wrens Choices
Wren had a choice to make in his new plan for St Pauls. Because of the popularity of Renaissance and subsequently Baroque architecture that was spreading across Europe in the beginning of the 16th Century, he needed to build his new Cathedral to please both the Catholic Church and seek Royal approval from King Charles II, he therefore decided to build St Pauls in the Baroque manor, evidence of this has been highlighted above.
Although Wren considered the out of favour late gothic architectural style to be vulgar and to represent a less civilised period of architectural expression, he still used it's then pioneering techniques of flying buttresses to build his nave as required by the Royal Commission. He disguised this construction technique behind more tastefully acceptable English baroque walls adorned with all the pediments and details that would be expected from the baroque style that Wren was aspiring too.
Wren's design for St Pauls has had a number of critical comments over the years from many sources, one of which was Anthony Ashley Cooper (4) , 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury in his book “Letter Concerning the Arts, or Science of Design” he observed its design was still considered excessive and vulgar, even when the Baroque style that Wren had used was more constrained than its European counterparts.
The use of the screen wall mentioned above to disguise the flying buttresses have also been criticised. Bannister Fletcher (3) went as far as to suggest opening up the screen wall to allow Wren's more mediaeval gothic technique to be exposed. It is debatable whether this addition to Wren's design would have either enhanced or taken away from the overall effect that Wren wanted to achieve, quite possibly causing the Cathedral to look far more stylistically confused causing a loss of Royal favour for Wren's now considered majestic design.
Sutton I (1999) “Western Architecture” Thames and Hudson P 216.
2. Summerson J (2018) “The Classical Language of Architecture” Thames and Hudson P 42.
3. Bannister Fletcher (1961) “A History of Architecture” The Athlone Press P 913.
4. Cooper, Anthony Ashley, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, (1731), “A Letter concerning the Art or Science of Design, written from Italy, on the occasion of the Judgement of Hercules, To My Lord...[sic]” <https://play.google.com/books/reader? id=k49bAAAAQAAJ&pg=GBS.PA396&hl=en_GB> (accessed 15th July 2022)
Sources of Illustrations
Fig 1 © Alec Boreham
Fig 2 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sant%27Andrea_al_Quirinale>
Fig 3 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sant%27Agnese_in_Agone#/media/File:
Fig 4 <https://iiif.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/iiif/viewer/3474f2f1-20d7-4c1c-8dd6-87813fb
Fig 5 © Alec Boreham