"Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you." (English translation of the Latin epitaph on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Viewed across the river from the South Bank of the Thames near the Tate Modern, there is no denying that Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, is an imposing sight. Your eye is drawn towards the magnificent dome, standing proud above the nearby buildings.
Until last week I’d only ever seen the outside of the cathedral, being put off by the rather exorbitant entrance fee. This can be avoided by attending one of the regular church services, but for me, as a confirmed atheist, that would be too high a price to pay! In any case those attending the service aren’t exactly at liberty to wander around. But having taken a short distance learning course on architectural history a couple of years ago, I really felt I ought to go and have a proper look at this iconic building and we decided to visit during our recent trip to London – the decision helped by finding out that there was a “two for the price of one” entry offer available for visitors travelling down to the capital by rail.
It’s a massive building, So big that it’s difficult to get a decent view of the whole structure. And it’s very different from any other Cathedral I’ve seen in Britain. They’re almost all built in Medieval Gothic / Romanesque style or Victorian Neo-Gothic. But St Paul’s is unashamedly different – Baroque, albeit with a restrained English twist. Mind you Christopher Wren had to compromise with the Anglican church establishment who didn’t want the building to mistaken for a Catholic church. If Wren had got his way it would have been more ornate and different in a number of respects, as can be seen in his “Great Model” .
I have mixed feelings about the exterior of the building. I think the dome is impressive (even if he did cheat in it’s construction – it’s really two domes, one inside the other, with an intermediate cone supporting the outer structure) but I am less taken with the main structure. To me it looks like it’s two buildings – one on top of the other. This is particularly evident at the front entrance. Here we have a portico with a triangular pediment (which looks good on it’s own) stuck on top of another one. It just looks wrong and messy to me.
And on the rest of the structure there’s a similar approach. It just doesn’t gel for me. But then, what do I know?
Anyway, having had a good mooch around the outside we climbed up the steps at the front of the building and paid our £15 to get in (it normally costs that per person). We discovered that due to essential maintenance work the Stone and Golden Galleries on the outside of the dome were closed to visitors from 7 January – 28 March 2013. I’m not sure we’d have had the nerve to climb all the way up to the Golden Gallery on the very top of the dome, but might have braved the Stone Gallery for the view over London. We did manage to climb the 259 steps up to the Whispering Gallery, though.
I was quite disappointed to find that photography wasn’t allowed, particularly given the high entrance fee. I know the building is expensive to maintain, and this is the justification for the fee, but when you’ve paid that much I think they ought to let you take photos. I can’t see a good reason for not allowing them (they are allowed in York Minster, for example). There are pictures on the Cathedral’s website.
The inside is impressive, but it is quite different from other Anglican cathedrals. The Nave, is relatively plain, with not paintings, but with some fine decorative stonework on the columns, which have very ornate capitals, the cornices and ceiling.
The inside of the dome is covered in frescos illustrating the life of St Paul painted by Sir James Thornhill, a major painter of the time. You get a closer view by climbing up to the Whispering Gallery.
The Quire, the area where the clergy and choir sit during services, is usually the fanciest part of a cathedral, and this is certainly the case in St Paul’s. The ceiling, in particular is covered with highly detailed mosaics. Quite Catholic.
The high altar stands at the end of the Quire at the East end of the building and is covered by an incredibly ornate baldacchino. I’ve never seen anything like it in an Anglican Cathedral before. It’s very Catholic in style, based, I believe on the one above altar in St Peter’s the Vatican. It was only installed in 1958, but was based on drawings by Wren himself.
So, my overall impression was that I was impressed by the skill of the architect and the craftsmen who designed and constructed the great building. And there were a number of aspects that I like. But although, as I admitted to above, I’m an atheist, I was brought up as a Protestant and feel uneasy with excessive Catholic style ornamentation, and there was too much of that in St Paul’s for me. I guess I’d have made a good Puritan!
After we’d looked around the Cathedral floor and been up the dome to the Whispering Gallery, we went down into the crypt. First stop was the cafe for a cup of tea and then we spent some time wandering around looking at the monuments and gravestones, particularly looking out for those relating to people we admire. I thought the memorial to William Blake was quite ironic, given his views on the Church of England .
I’m glad I took the opportunity to visit. But don’t think I’d be prepared to pay to explore the inside again. I’ll stick to taking in the view from across the river, which to my mind displays the best aspect of the building (you can only see the dome and the top part of the main structure).