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The Construction of a London Icon | St. Paul’s Cathedral Architecture

A magnificent architectural icon, St. Paul's Cathedral, one of London's prestigious religious centers and currently the Seat of the Bishop of London, has managed to stand tall for more than 300 years. A highlight of Christopher Wren's career, this masterpiece was also way ahead of its time boasting Neoclassical, Gothic and Baroque elements. Read on to find out all about the architectural-style and the architect behind St. Paul's Cathedral in this quick guide.

Knowledge graph about St. Paul's Cathedral

Official Name: Cathedral Church of St Paul the Apostle

Attraction Type: Church

Location: St. Paul's Churchyard, London EC4M 8AD, United Kingdom

Opened: 1710

Area: Approximately 574 feet

Architectural Style: Renaissance architecture and English Baroque architecture

Main Architects: Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke

Architectural style of St. Paul's Cathedral

st paul's cathedral architecture

Who designed St. Paul's Cathedral?

sir christopher wren st paul's cathedral architecture

Christopher Wren

Influenced by Italian and Baroque styles observed during his visit to Paris, Sir Christopher Wren, in his 50-year career, designed 53 London churches, including the monumental St. Paul's Cathedral. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, he proposed reconstructing St. Paul's with a dome, facing challenges in meeting royal expectations and maintaining English church traditions.

Robert Hooke

Robert Hooke, an English scientist and architect, collaborated closely with Sir Christopher Wren in designing St. Paul's Cathedral. Though less celebrated than Wren's, Hooke's contributions were notable, particularly in shaping the dome's mathematical and mechanical structure. His innovative theories, published in anagram form, significantly influenced the cathedral's structural design despite his architectural achievements being relatively overlooked compared to Wren's.

Stages of construction

st paul's cathedral architecture

Initiation and early designs

The design and construction of St. Paul's Cathedral saw three different iterations before Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece. The first cathedral, founded in 604 AD, marked the beginning of this long history on Ludgate Hill. The second cathedral, started in 1087, was destroyed, prompting the creation of Old St. Paul's, a Gothic marvel with a towering spire, which was ultimately destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, leading to Wren's iconic design.

st paul's cathedral architecture

Reconstruction by Wren

After the Great Fire, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design a replacement structure. Inspired by contemporary Renaissance trends in Italian architecture, Wren combined English medieval cathedral traditions with Inigo Jones's classical style and Mansart's French buildings. The final design, strongly influenced by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, adopted a restrained Baroque style.

st paul's cathedral architecture

Structural development

The construction of St. Paul's Cathedral demanded meticulous attention to detail, utilizing carefully selected stone and brick to ensure both durability and grandeur. The process featured intricate masonry work, precise architectural detailing, and advanced building techniques. This meticulous approach highlighted the era's exceptional craftsmanship and innovation.




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Structure of St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's Cathedral, an architectural masterpiece, was constructed using Portland stone, a durable and elegant light grey limestone from Dorset, England, which formed the cathedral's exterior. Inside, intricate marble floors, colorful stone mosaics, and ornate ironwork enhance its beauty. Sir Christopher Wren's innovative design features a triple dome system, including an inner dome, a brick cone for support, and an outer dome covered in wood and lead. This marvel stands as a testament to architectural ingenuity and timeless beauty.

St. Paul’s Cathedral’s Exterior

Set on Summit Hill overlooking the city of Saint Paul, the highlight of St Paul's facade is the high, lead-covered dome that stands tall at 365 feet, dominating views of the city. Considered one of the world's largest domes, its design is said to be heavily influenced by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The West Front and the walls of the cathedral are other standout features of its exterior.

st paul's cathedral architecture

The Dome

Being one of the largest dome in the world, St. Paul's Cathedral's Dome is quite famous. It has dominated the London skyline for a long time, is double-shelled, and composed of three components - an outer dome, a brick cone within for structural support, and an inner dome. The 18-inch thick cone and inner dome are supported by iron chains to prevent cracking and spreading. Wren borrowed this idea from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica and further improved upon it to feature extra supportive elements. The cross on top of the outer dome stands nearly 366 feet above ground level.

st paul's cathedral architecture

The West Front

The West Front is the main entrance of St. Paul's Cathedral with a 30-feet high Great West Door (which is only opened completely for special occasions). There is a columned portico along with an upper columned colonnade. The pediment has the ‘Conversion of St Paul’, a bas-relief sculpture by Francis Bird. Above this pediment lie three different statues of Saint James, Saint Paul and Saint Peter. Finally, framing the portico on either side are the two bell towers of the cathedral known as West Towers. 

st paul's cathedral architecture

The Walls

The two-storey body of the church and its walls are made of granite stone, in the shape of a Greek cross with nearly equal length arms. The exterior wall serves a dual purpose of supporting the buttresses of the vault, and providing a beautiful appearance of the cathedral when viewed rising above buildings of the height of the 17th-century city. You can still see the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral from across the River Thames. You can also see the Corinthian pillars and windows between them on the exteriors.

Interiors of St. Paul’s Cathedral

St. Paul's Cathedral interiors were designed with unobstructed views of the altar and pulpit so that all the visitors would be able to see and hear the Mass. Light floods into the cathedral interiors through the 24 large windows in the dome and the rose windows in the transept.

st paul's cathedral architecture

The interiors of the dome

When visiting St. Paul's Cathedral, admire its impressive dome from the transept. Weighing nearly 65,000 tons, this grand structure is supported by eight Dorset stone piers and arches, distributing its weight evenly. The dome's interior features a stunning fresco by James Thornhill depicting scenes from Saint Paul's life. Light enters through openings in the outer dome and brick cone, illuminating the interior and supporting the inner dome.

st paul's cathderal architecture

The Apse and High Altar

The High Altar and Apse are in the cathedral's eastern section. Funded by British citizens, the Apse became the American Memorial Chapel in 1958, honoring over 28,000 Americans who died in WW2. The High Altar, designed by Wren and carved from Italian marble, features a 10-foot cross and two gilded candlesticks commemorating WW2 victims. An oak canopy, added in 1958, covers the altar.

st paul's cathderal architecture

The Clock and Bells

St. Paul's West Front features two Baroque-style bell towers, the West Towers. The southwest tower houses three clock bells, including 'Big Tom,' by John Smith in 1893, and the 5-ton 'Great Tom.' These bells mark hours and toll for significant deaths. The northwest tower holds 12 bells, with the 17-ton 'Great Paul,' England's largest bell, currently silent due to a broken chiming mechanism.

St. Paul’s Cathedral Art Project

St. Paul’s Cathedral houses an impressive art collection, including Grinling Gibbons' carvings, Sir James Thornhill's dome murals, and Victorian mosaics. This art has inspired and illuminated the Christian faith, offering reflection and contemplation. The Visual Arts Programme explores the intersection of art and faith, featuring renowned artists like Rebecca Horn, Yoko Ono, Antony Gormley, and Bill Viola, enriching the cathedral's worship.

Frequently Asked Questions about St. Paul’s Cathedral architecture

What are some notable architectural features of St. Paul's Cathedral?

Notable architectural features include the iconic dome, the West Front, the intricate stone carvings, and the impressive interior spaces such as the nave and quire.

How long did it take to build St. Paul's Cathedral?

Construction of St. Paul's Cathedral began in 1675 and was completed in 1710, taking approximately 35 years to finish.

What engineering techniques were used to construct the dome?

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral utilizes a triple dome system, including an inner dome, a brick cone for support, and an outer dome covered in wood and lead.

What is the significance of the Great Model of St. Paul's Cathedral?

The Great Model is a detailed wooden model created by Sir Christopher Wren to visualize and plan the cathedral's construction, providing valuable insight into its design and layout.

How did the design of St. Paul's Cathedral adapt to changing architectural trends?

Sir Christopher Wren incorporated elements of contemporary Renaissance and Baroque architecture into the design of St. Paul's Cathedral while maintaining traditional English architectural features.

What is the significance of the West Towers of St. Paul's Cathedral?

The West Towers house the cathedral's bells and clock mechanisms, including the famous 'Big Tom' bell, which tolls on significant occasions such as royal deaths and major events.