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The Reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 2608 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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A Phoenix Raised by Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren: The Reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, in particular, the West Front Portico

For more than 1400 years, St Paul’s Cathedral dominates the skyline of London. Standing as the largest cathedral in Britain and the fifth largest cathedral in the world, St Paul’s has had a very intriguing history which had undergone a series of invasions, natural disasters and human sabotage overtimes. Although this cathedral has had gone through transformations and modifications during its tough periods, it has sprung back with the support of numerous generations of citizens and became a great treasure in the architectural field. In this essay, I will first carry a brief introduction of the background history during its early period of construction and then examined into Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren’s relation to St Paul’s Cathedral, and to be more specific, I will discuss the west front portico that they produced respectively.

1. Background History

1.1 From 604 to 1087

In 604, Saint Mellitus established the first St Paul’s as the seat of the new bishop. Companied by Saint Augustine, they were on a mission from Rome instigated by Pope Gregory the Great in 597. It is assumed the first Anglo-Saxon cathedral stood onsite, however, this cathedral had a relatively short-lived structure which constantly damaged by flames and attacks from the Vikings during that period. And later on, this “St Paul’s was destroyed by fire in 675 and by the Danes in 961” (Saunders 14).

1.2 From 1087 to 1621

After the previous wooden Saxon church built on the site, the construction of the fourth St Paul’s, which referred to as Old St Paul’s, was begun by the Normans during the reign of William the Conqueror after the 1087 flame. Along the renovation, the taste of architectural style moved gradually from Norman Romanesque-style to the English Gothic style which reflected in pointed arches and the use of clustered pillars as the substitution of heavy columns. The entire cathedral was not consecrated until 1240 since the construction was interrupted due to another fire happened at London Bridge in 1136. The roof was once more rebuilt after a succession of storms in 1255. Another conflagration in 1561 caused by lightning, caught at the spire crashed down through the nave roof of the building.

2. Inigo Jones’s Renovation and His West Front Portico

In 1620, concerned at the decaying state of the building, King James I launched a scheme for the restoration and appointed England’s first classical architect, Inigo Jones, by this time Surveyor of Works, to carry on this project. By the time, Jones just arrived from Europe after learning the ideals of the classical architectural structure. In the 1630s, inspired by the temples that he saw in ancient Rome and the work of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, Jones not only repaired the massive Gothic structure but used various of ancient and modern sources as models for his addition of the Corinthian portico on the façade of the west front. The whole process was interrupted by English Civil War which the Parliamentarian forces “defaced and mistreated the building. Old documents and charters were dispersed and destroyed; the nave was used as a stable for cavalry horses” (Kelly). The great works eventually stopped in 1642, at that time, apart from the central tower, the entire exterior of St Paul’s had been in one sense or another renewed. The choir which built in the 14th century was also “renewed by careful replacement of decayed masonry, including moldings and carved ornaments” (Summerson 55).

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The gigantic Corinthian portico at the west front was a new limb of the cathedral. Although it incongruous with the Romanesque nave and transepts on either side of the building, this was still the most remarkable piece of his work at St Paul’s. The work began in the year after Charles I decided to pay for the renovation out of his own revenue. If we can look closely at this classical portico, the engraving showed the symbol of Charles I’s identification with the antique past. Anderson stated that “the difference between this portico and the rest of the church is even signaled in the inscription place on it, which states that Charles paid for the portico’s construction” (193). The façade was featured with two levels that turrets at both sides on the upper level and porticoes at the lower level. On the top of the portico, “frieze of lions’ heads and foliage with plans for a series of statues which some say were to be saints and other kings to be placed along the top” (“Exploring London”). Without a pediment, the portico was featuring with 16 columns in total – ten monolithic Corinthian columns across its breadth, three intercolumniations at both sides of it. The columns have been suggested that stood about 56 feet tall which “structured twice its height Jones took from Palladio’s reconstruction of the temple of Venus and Rome” (Summerson 60). As for the order of the shape and size, Jones based upon the “temple of Antoninus and Faustina, an order which, to the modern eye, is at once the least elaborated and most eloquently profiled of the Corinthian orders of Rome” (Summerson 60). Nevertheless, in contrast, his columns here at St Paul’s were a trifle thicker than those of the Roman temple. Although the cornices are identical, the intercolumniation was astonishingly subtle, and both the frieze and architrave are shallower. And this lacking in gathering effect of a pediment result in the tendency of falling outwards. Jones solved the problem by “giving a pronouncedly greater intercolumniation to the center bay and then to close the ends with a penultimate column standing up against a square pier” (Summerson 61).

Beyond the fact that using portico is one of the most prestigious features in classical architecture, what else can explain the desire of adding portico which was conventionally linked with pagan temples to the churches in Christendom? Why should Jones include portico in the restoration of St Paul’s? If we compare St Peter’s to St Paul’s, it was not hard to find that both were featured with ten columns in the front and this was unlikely to be a coincidence. In this case, the desire to exceed St Peter’s must have been one driving force. “The English gained particular satisfaction in achieving the portico that the Romans had failed to build at the St Peter’s” (Worsley 132). Former apprentice John Webb wrote that this magnificent portico “contracted the Envy of all Christendom upon our Nation, for a Piece of Architecture, not to be paralleled in the last Ages of the World.” (23).

By 1642, the scaffolding was placed inside the cathedral for the reconstruction of the interior and the tower. However, war broke out between King Charles I and his Parliament. Since then, the cathedral was never put into use. “Timber was sold off to supply arrears of pay to the Parliamentary army, and the great building was turned into a cavalry barracks – at one point, 800 horses were stabled there. Booth and shops were built against the portico; the colonnade which had been a source of pride to king, bishop, and architecture became a place for sordid hucksters” (Saunders 27).

3. The Great Fire in 1666 and Christopher Wren’s Reconstruction

Today, if one of Europe’s great Cathedrals were to burn down, there is no doubt drawing together a team of specialist around the world to rebuild it to a facsimile of its initial form. However, it was not so in the 17th century of England after the Great Fire in England destroyed four-fifths of the Medieval City including St Paul’s at its heart. “The Great Fire took place on Monday 27 August 1666 in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, and by Tuesday afternoon the cathedral itself was threatened” (Campbell 22). Six days after the fire, Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor General to the Crown, was given the mission of rebuilding London and St Paul’s. At that time, as a brilliant mathematician and an Astronomy Professor, his design had always following a perfect geometrically order. The essential feature of his renovation was the creation of the great dome and the redesigned the portico on the west front when he noticed that the stone of the portico designed by Inigo Jones “was in danger of collapse and utterly beyond repair” (Campbell 24).

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Around 1685, Wren had engaged in renovating the west front portico. The two-tier portico was featured with Ionic portico on each level. On the upper level, 4 pairs of columns around the windows supported a pedimented on the top “with bird’s carving of the Conversion of St Paul’s on the road to Damascus” (Saunders 114), providing a view for the “screen walls”. On the church-floor level, the portico columns are raised 71 ft high above a pedestal. While the lower level differentiated themselves in order to emphasize the strength, they still continued the subject of the outer walls. In order to create a visual indication of thickness, the ground level windows were smaller and deeply recessed than those of the side walls. The remarkable feature here is that “the lower storey extends to the full width of the aisles, while the upper section defines the nave that lies behind it” (“Stpauls”). Since this novel portico is lack of an obvious antique precedent, Wren himself replicated a natural prototype. His prototype was the shade provided around trees, and that “when the temples were brought into cities, stone pillars represented the trees” (Hart 6). Although Wren imagined these trees as the origin porticoes, St Paul’s portico suggested that these trees were “not equally growing’ in the space” (Hart 6). Wren even imitated the proportions order of trees, for “at first the columns were six diameters in height; when the limitation of groves was forgotten, the diameters were advanced to seven; then to eight; then to nine, as in the Lonick Order; then, at last, to ten, as in the Corinthian and Italic Orders” (Hart 6).

Wren’s study was limited to the Renaissance that studied alongside the architecture of Inigo Jones and Baroque style he saw in Paris, however, he played a critical role in the shaping “the early sciences represented by the founding of the Royal Society which, in following the principles of Francis Bacon, was dedicated to enquiry into natural phenomena through observation and not received tradition” (Hart 4). His education highlighted the “shift in priority from a knowledge and geometry as the guarantor of architectural practice” (Hart 5). Under his concept, the mathematical science, the using of materials, and the science of structural system were more important than the art that the architecture present – “‘a fine Design will fail’, the first criterion of design shouldn’t be the appearance, but the intrinsic structural quality and geometric purity of the building” (10 Hart). As a geometrician, he deemed firmness and the structural integrity as the principles based on statics. When he discussed the roof of the Old St Paul’s he said: “the Roof is, and ever was, too heavy for its Butment” (Hart10). He emphasized later that his new design would shift from the practice of Renaissance architects to those based on geometry which took into consideration the safety issue.

Wren himself believed that “his own St Paul’s owed much in its initial stages to the remodeling of its precursor is well known” (61 Summerson 1990). Nine years of planning plus another thirty-five years of delivering, the present St Paul’s Cathedral designed by Wren not only fulfilled the needs but stood as a symbol for the England Church, the renovated city, and the emerging empire.

4. Conclusion

As two great savers of St Paul’s Cathedral in the history, Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren rebuilt the cathedral under different concepts. Inigo Jones, as the father of classical architecture, influenced on a number of architects after his time. As for the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, he brought his understanding of the ancient temples to the creation of the west front portico. Jones’s theory of design was strictly rational since Jones was a Platonist, who believed that “architecture should embody perfect geometrical or numerical forms to reflect the harmonious structure of the cosmos” (Higgott 1). As for Wren, since he had a thorough understanding of geometric proportion and professional in mathematics, he designed the building with its new feature based on the principles of architecture. “Unlike several of his colleagues, who regarded it as a set of rules and formulas for design, he had acquired, understood, and exploited the necessary combination of reason and intuition, experience and imagination” (Hart 17). He learned from Inigo Jones’s classical portico to that extent, adding with his own understanding of the “beauty” and presented the public a well-rounded front. Both of them were in favor of the mathematical relation of the structure and believed in the universal efficacy of number. Thanks to both of their dedication, we can see the great cathedral and having a sense of the classical and Baroque beauty on an original Gothic building.

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Christy. Inigo Jones And the Classical Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 183-196.
  • Campbell, James, Building St Paul’s. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007, pp. 21-25.
  • Exploring London. “Lost London – Inigo Jones’s Grand Portico on Old St Paul’s Cathedral…”. 2015, https://exploring-london.com/2015/07/31/lost-london-inigo-jones-grand-portico-on-old-st-pauls-cathedral/. Accessed 25 Nov 2018.
  • Hart, Vaughn, St Paul’s Cathedral: Sir Christopher Wren. London: Phaidon, 1995, pp. 1-15.
  • Higgott, Gordon. “’Varying with Reason’: Inigo Jones’s Theory of Design.” Architectural History, vol. 35, 1992, pp. 51–77. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1568571. Accessed 28 Nov 2018.
  • John Webb, A Vindication of Stone-Heng Restored. London, 1665, p. 23.
  • Kelly, Susan (2004). Charters of St Paul’s, London. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Saunders, Ann, and Sampson Lloyd. St. Paul’s – The Story of The Cathedral. 1st ed., Collins & Brown, 2003, p. 14.
  • Stpauls. Co. UK. “Upper Elevations and West End from C.1685 – St Paul’s Cathedral”. Stpauls.Co.UK, 2018, https://www.stpauls.co.uk/history-collections/the-collections/architectural-archive/wren-office-drawings/3-upper-elevations-and-west-end-from-c1685. Accessed 27 Nov 2018.
  • Summerson, John, ‘Inigo Jones: Covent Garden and the Restoration of St Paul’s Cathedral’, in The Unromantic Castle (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990), pp. 41–62.
  • Worsley, Giles, Inigo Jones, and the European Classicist Tradition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 123-136.


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