Thursday, May 16, 2013

Today's Cathedral: St. Paul's, London

St. Paul's in London is one of those inescapable monuments, on the basic London tour, its picture everywhere. But have you ever really looked at it? The other day I saw a picture of St. Paul's and asked myself, what is the design supposed to mean? In my undergraduate days I sat through a series of lectures on how everything about a Gothic cathedral means something in a grand scheme based on the medieval model of the cosmos. But what does St. Paul's mean?

St. Paul's is a legacy of the Great Fire of London in 1666, which completely destroyed the old Gothic St.Paul's. The commission for building the new cathedral was given to Christopher Wren, with King Charles II choosing the design from a series of models Wren prepared. Construction began in 1675 and was completed in 1711.

The cathedral was a huge project that drew the attention of the whole British leadership in church and state. It was the first new cathedral built in England in more than 200 years, the first in a post-medieval style. But what style would that be? Wren's early models combined various elements of Gothic and Classical design. Slowly the Gothic was pared away, leaving something thoroughly of the 17th century.

But what does it mean? Consider just one detail, the windows. St. Paul's, like all of Wren's churches, used clear glass windows. Some of Wren's smaller churches are full of clear light. This was surely a theological statement about the clear light of reason, and also a contrast between the open, public character of Protestantism and the murky dimness of medieval Catholicism.  But I might just be making this up, because neither online nor in any book I have handy can I find a straightforward statement about why Wren and his patrons liked clear glass. (The Victorians, who liked stained glass, replaced a lot of windows in Wren's churches, leading to a big debate in the twentieth century about whether to restore the churches to the purity of Wren's original design or keep the Victorian mess and color.)

The sculptures depict only the approved Protestant saints, the ones mentioned in the Bible. St. Paul is on top, of course, with his conversion in the pediment. Around him are the evangelists., and directly below him is the Phoenix Resurgans, representing both the soul reborn in God and London reborn after the fire.

Another thing I have noticed, staring at pictures, is that while the facade of the church is gray, and the nave is gray, the holy east end is gold. I assume that this is also theological and intentional, but, again, I cannot find any authoritative statement to this effect.

One of my friends said that he found the vast interior space cold and offputting. I found it amazing and majestic, but I know what he meant. The huge volume of the nave is not a warm space at all. Was that intentional and theological? Or is it just that the space is huge?

Were all the Greek and Roman design elements supposed to convey something, like the unity of faith and reason? Or was it just that classical stuff was in style?

Whatever, it is an amazing building. I remember that when I saw it I was glad that one of England's medieval cathedrals was destroyed, so that we might have this masterpiece. I am glad, mind you, that the rest of the medieval cathedrals did survive, since the Gothic is my first architectural love, but St. Paul's is astonishing in a way that few other buildings are.

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