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Profile: Cathedral Church of St Paul the Apostle, London

In the history of the City of London's churches, the Great Fire is inescapable, and omnipresent is the architect who rebuilt so many, Sir Christopher Wren. Just as inevitable on my journey around central London, therefore, was the greatest of Wren's churches: the Cathedral of London itself.

The current building dates back to the flurry of activity that was Sir Christopher Wren's career after 1666.[1] Famously, over a few days in September, a fire had ripped through the heart of the City of London, and destroyed a swathe of buildings – shops, houses, churches, you name it. Among the casualties was the fourth Cathedral of London, and its rebuilding was a symbol of the wider recovery of the city as a whole.[2]

Since the first service in the 1690s, St Paul's has become symbolic of the nation itself, as much as for London. Hence that unforgettable image of the cathedral's dome surrounded by the smoke of the Blitz – a symbol of London's (and therefore the country's) survival, and defiance in the face of enemy violence. Contrary to popular legend, St Paul's didn't make it through the Blitz unscathed – like many London churches it suffered internal damage from German bombs – but the survival of the dome and exterior of the building was a boost for morale.

Wren's building wasn't immediately popular, however.

The previous cathedral had been begun by the Normans and provided a physical catalogue of the changes from the earlier Romanesque to the later Gothic style. It had flying buttresses, a tall central spire and a chapter house considered one of the earliest examples of Perpendicular Gothic. Wren's Baroque replacement design was a radical departure.

That dome, based as it was on the dome at St Peter's in Rome, reminded the casual viewer of not only the mother church of Catholicism, but also more easterly, Orthodox churches. The pillars smacked of pagan Ancient Greece and Rome. Wren had clearly been inspired by his time in France and Italy, surrounded by Classical architecture. His proposal – with its Renaissance broadness, and little of the height of the Gothic style – fell decidedly outside the tradition of English, and Anglican, church-building.

The bidding process went through several stages of rejection and adaptation before reaching the iconic shape we know today. The design that eventually won the approval of King Charles II is a compromise between the tradition of English Gothic (mostly along the ground level, with a long Latin nave) and Wren's hopes for an improved Renaissance style obeying rules of proportion and Classical elegance in the upper levels and that dome.[3]

Ceiling detail from St Paul's

The Civil War that had cost the king's father his crown and life might have been over, but it was part of a longer-running religious and political conflict that was still making itself felt even thirty years later. Charles II, head of the Anglican church, but married to a Catholic princess and suspected of secret Catholicism himself, trod a fine line between these two branches of Christianity. He also had to balance them with the growing numbers of dissenting Christians: Protestants who didn't subscribe to the Church of England, or sometimes to any organised church structure at all. Such groups had run the country during Charles' exile in France, and had carried out the most violent burst of iconoclasm since Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. A new cathedral for London had to also strike a balance.[4]

The iconoclasts no doubt approved of the fact that the new St Paul's opened with no statues to decorate the inside, and the walls and ceiling were largely unpainted. Things didn't stay that way.

Queen Victoria and her Georgian predecessors visited St Paul's rarely, but she turned up on one occasion to pray for her son, who was ill with typhus (don't worry, he survived). She found time to comment on the drabness of the cathedral's interior, and, at a time when the upheavals of the Reformation were rather less pressing, arranged a fund for redecorating. We have that fund to thank for the glitzy mosaics set into the roof around the dome and above the quire, and for inspiring further decoration in later years.[5]

Samuel Johnson's statue in St Paul's

St Paul's didn't stay free of statues for long, either. But rather than the statues of saints and Biblical figures that the church reformers had objected to, the statues in St Paul's are a record of national history and triumph over adversity. In 1790, prison reformer John Howard became the first person commemorated with a statue in St Paul's, but he is far from the last.

The busiest place for memorials, of course, is the crypt under the nave. It's a like a roll-call of British military endeavour down there. The most obvious are the towering marble sarcophagi for those heroes of the British psyche, Nelson and Wellington, whose ceremonial funerals were held in St Paul's and pioneered the idea of prominent non-royals receiving something like a state funeral.

Understandably, a grateful nation wanted to give thanks for Nelson's sacrifice in the Battle of Trafalgar (and his earlier naval victories). In a way, it seems a shame that Nelson gets a black marble sarcophagus, complete with Viscount's crown, down the passageway from Wellington’s equally domineering and ornate black sarcophagus with lions at the feet, while in a corner there’s a rather plain, squared off slab to commemorate those who lost their lives on Arctic convoys between 1940-1945. Their names may be many, and their fame lesser, but they faced as much, if not more, personal danger than the commanders of armies and navies. Surely, these ordinary men and women are to be remembered and celebrated too?

There's one person explicitly not commemorated with a statue in St Paul's. Fittingly, the highlights guided tour of the cathedral finishes under the centre of the three-layered dome, and the guide told us that Sir Christopher Wren deserved a sentence or two. Below the dome, the wording from Wren's tomb is laid out in big letters, advising the reader, in Latin, not to look for a monument or statue of Wren, but to look around, for the building itself is his monument. And what a legacy he left.

Wren in the window at another of his London churches

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