The Architecture of Saint Paul's Cathedral in London

The Architecture of Saint Paul's Cathedral in London
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  • 0:01 A Little History of…
  • 1:29 The Plan of Saint Paul's
  • 4:04 A Combination of Styles
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we're going to tour Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. We'll learn a bit about its history, study its architectural design, and examine the various styles incorporated into this amazing building.

A Little History of Saint Paul's

Welcome! My name is Christopher Wren and I'm going to take you on a tour of one of my favorite buildings, Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. What? You don't know who I am? You don't know anything about Saint Paul's? Well, we'd better remedy that!

Let's begin with a little history. There has been a church on the site of Saint Paul's for hundreds of years. Buildings burned and were rebuilt many times until the Old Saint Paul's was constructed in the late 11th century. That cathedral was getting pretty run down by my day (I was born in 1632), and I, mathematician, astronomer, and architect that I am, was hired to come up with a plan to renovate it. I didn't get a chance. In 1666, tragedy struck in the form of the Great Fire of London, and a large portion of the city, including the Old Saint Paul's, was left in ashes.

So instead of renovating the Old Saint Paul's, I got to design and build a new one, and it was quite a process, too, let me tell you. I went through several different designs before the king and his committee finally liked one, and even that one I had to tweak a bit to meet my standards. The construction of the new Saint Paul's began in 1675, and the cathedral was finally completed in 1710. At least I got to see the fruits of my labor during my lifetime. I didn't die until 1723.

The Plan of Saint Paul's

Now that you have some background information firmly in place, let's start our tour. I chose to design Saint Paul's in the form of an ancient basilica, a type of building used by the Romans for judicial purposes before it was adopted by early Christians as a church.

We'll begin our tour at the cathedral's primary entrance, the West Front. I'm especially proud of my design here. Notice the two towers, the columns, the delicate, symmetrical windows, and all the fine decorations carved in relief. I think I quite outdid myself, really.

The West Front entrance
Image of West Front

If you step back a bit, you can catch a glimpse of the cathedral's dome. It's a beauty, isn't it? The top of the cross reaches to a height of 365 feet. That was deliberate, too; people should think of the number of days in a year and remember that the cathedral and the Christian faith it symbolizes should be part of their lives every day of the year. The dome is quite a complex structure with inner and outer layers and a brick shell in between. I chose this method because I wanted to make sure that the dome looked regal and stately on the outside but refrained from overwhelming people who were looking at it from the inside of Saint Paul's.

The interior of the cathedral
Interior of the cathedral

Anyway, let's enter the cathedral. The basilica design really shows up inside. Saint Paul's is deliberately shaped like a cross. We'll walk up the cross as we progress through the nave, which is the main gathering area for worshipers. There are side aisles set off by arches on each side of the nave, and I added pretty little chapels on each side, too. Look at the interior decorations as we go. The level of detail and ornamentation is stunning, isn't it? There are paintings and sculptures and mosaics everywhere.

The dome interior
Dome interior

Look up now, as we stand under the dome. Sir James Thornhill did the paintings of the life of St. Paul up there, and aren't they marvelous? There are several galleries up near the top of the dome so people can climb up and get a closer look. We're now in the transept of the cathedral, the part that stretches out like the arms of a cross. There are semi-circular entrances at the tip of each arm of the transept.

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