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Secrets of London's St. Paul's Cathedral

A consideration of St. Paul's Cathedral in London should really begin on the Southbank. This is where the architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) lived while supervising the cathedral's construction, and from where he had an unimpeded view of the work in progress. A plaque identifying 49 Bankside as Wren's house though was in reality removed here when his actual home a few doors along was demolished.

For fourteen centuries a cathedral dedicated to Saint Paul has stood on the summit of Ludgate Hill. Rising majestically over the City, Wren's cathedral is the fifth structure on the site to bear the name of London's patron saint. The suggestion that a Roman temple to the goddess Diana stood here has never been proven though.

The first known cathedral was a wooden one erected in AD 604, when the Frankish abbot Mellitus, sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the Kingdom of Kent to Christianity, was made first Bishop of London. After being destroyed by fire it was rebuilt in 675 in stone only to be destroyed in the 9th century by the Vikings and rebuilt again in 962. In 1087 this too burned and its replacement, known as Old St. Paul's, was erected. Completed in 1314 with what at the time was the highest spire ever built it remained in use until its destruction in 1666 during the Great Fire.

After the fire Wren was commissioned to design an entirely new cathedral. Influenced by Renaissance and Baroque trends it is not surprising that his early designs were rejected by the puritanical Church Commissioners. His fifth design, however, was accepted with a “noble cupola…of wonderful grace” between the nave and choir.

Despite being a well-known building, St. Paul's still retains some secrets. Look closely at the pediment over the entrance into the South Transept. It is said that when the site was cleared Wren asked a workman to fetch a stone to mark the centre of the new building. The man brought a broken gravestone inscribed with the word Resurgam, meaning “I shall rise again”, which Wren had inscribed here beneath a phoenix rising from the flames. The adjacent blank second storey walls are cleverly used to conceal Gothic flying buttresses supporting the cathedral's clerestory, whilst eight hidden columns support the mighty dome.

In the choir beyond the dome are much-admired stalls carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721) but don't overlook the wrought iron screens by the mysterious Jean Tijou. Here can also be found the ghostly effigy of poet and cleric John Donne (1572–1631) and William Holman Hunt's painting The Light of the World.

It is entirely fitting that Wren is buried in the cathedral's crypt, where his tomb is inscribed thus: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice (Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you).

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Duncan JD Smith is a Vienna-based travel writer, historian, photographer and publisher. Find out more at Duncan J D Smith. The article is an extract of "Only in London", the 10th volume in the Only In series and is available online from Amazon Only in London

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: July 7, 2016



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