st paul's cathedral architecture

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.

St Paul’s Cathedral Architectural Style

st paul's cathedral architecture

St Paul’s Cathedral’s Architect

sir christopher wren st paul's cathedral architecture

The Design of St Paul’s Cathedral

st paul's cathedral architecture

Development of the Design

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, St Paul's Cathedral suffered severe damages, adding to the poor state it was already in before the fire. Incidentally, a week before the great tragedy, King Charles II had commissioned three surveyors, including the scientist Dr. Christopher Wren, to work on patching up the building, and the radical and controversial solution he proposed was to replace the tower with a dome. In 1669, he was officially announced as the Surveyor of St. Paul’s. 

Due to the lack of funds to completely rebuild the cathedral, which was part of his ‘First Model’, Wren proposed that the cathedral be rebuilt atop its existing foundations. It was also envisioned to be only around one third of the size of the final building. However, this plan was rejected on the grounds of being too modest by the Dean and Chapter.

After this, before committing to the final design, Christopher Wren submitted three other designs after the first between 1670-1672.

st paul's cathedral architecture

Final Design

The second design had a 'Greek Cross', which didn’t quite align with Anglican liturgy. This design however, evolved into Wren's favorite third design called the 'Great Model'. It was named so because King Charles requested that a large model of it be built in the classical style, with the central section of the building below a large dome. This took about a year to create. The model now sits in the trophy room at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Yet, the churchmen didn’t approve this design as it didn’t follow the traditional cross-shape of a medieval cathedral.

At long last, between 1674 to 1675, the final formal proposal, also the fourth design, the 'Warrant Design' was approved by King Charles. This was more of a traditional plan in the classical Baroque style popular at the time. The 'Final Design' was built heaps different from the Warrant incorporating ornamental changes by King Charles. And so, the building work finally began in June 1675, nine years after the Great Fire.

st paul's cathedral architecture

Structural Engineering

Sir Wren tactfully overcame several of the construction challenges he faced while rebuilding St. Paul's Cathedral. The first was to construct a large cathedral on the relatively weak clay soil of London. To make this a possibility, he built Europe's largest crypt (that extends under the entire building) for structural support and supplemented this with eight rather than four piers to distribute the weight more evenly on the foundation. 

The next of his worries was to construct the signature dome to be tall enough to visually replace the tower lost in the fire and make it look visually appealing from the inside too. To achieve visual height, Wren took inspiration from what Michelangelo did at St Peter's and separated the heights of the inner and outer dome, but to a much greater extent. Lastly, he also replaced the external buttresses from the Warrant Design with thick walls, thereby eliminating the need for external buttresses altogether.

st paul's cathedral architecture

Designers, Craftsmen and Builders

A team of exceptional designers, craftsmen and builders helped complete St. Paul's Cathedral, right from design and rationalization to carpentry and decorative ironwork. Nicholas Hawksmoor was the Principal Assistant while William Dickinson was the Measuring Clerk. Master Masons, Thomas and his brother Edward Strong also worked on the construction for its entirety. 

Other members of note are master carpenter John Langland, chief sculptor Grinling Gibbons and Jean Tijou who was responsible for the decorative wrought ironwork of gates and balustrades among others. Gino Masero, a Master Carver, was commissioned to carve an eight-foot sculpture of Christ in Lime that was to replace the old one, which currently stands atop the High Altar.  

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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 the second 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.

St Paul’s Cathedral Interior

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 Dome

During your visit to St Paul’s Cathedral, do look up at the dome from the transept to really appreciate its magnificence. This is one of the largest domes in the world and weighs almost 65,000 tons! Eight piers made from Dorset stone support the dome from the cathedral floor and the eight arches help evenly distribute the weight of the massive dome. The niches contain several statues as well! 

The dome interior is decorated with a beautiful fresco painted by James Thornhill that depicts 8 different scenes from Saint Paul’s life. The openings in the outer dome and the brick cone help light the dome while also supporting the weight of the inner dome. There is a round opening and an oculus at the apex of the dome that allows you to look inside at the decorated cone that supports the lantern.

st paul's cathderal architecture

The Apse and High Altar

The High Altar and the Apse are located in the eastern portion of the cathedral main floor. Paid entirely from the donations of the British citizens, the Apse was dedicated as the American Memorial Chapel in 1958. The Roll of Honour in front of the chapel’s altar has the names of more than 28,000 Americans who lost their lives while being stationed or on their way to the United Kingdom during WW2. 

Weighing almost 4 tons and carved out of Italian marble, the High Altar’s design is based on original sketches by Wren. This piece is a memorial for those who lost their lives in World War II. A 10-feet-tall cross sits on the High Altar that has an amethyst-embellished silver enameled base. On either side are two gilded candlesticks, each 5 feet tall. A large oak canopy that was installed in 1958 covers the High Altar.

st paul's cathderal architecture

The Clock and Bells

On either side of St. Paul's West Front are two Baroque-style bell towers known as the West Towers. The southwest tower holds three clock bells of which the most prominent is the clock known as 'Big Tom'. It was made by John Smith and installed in 1893 and the bell further connects to the clock 'Great Tom'. This is the largest of all clocks and weighs over 5 tons. Apart from striking the hours, the clock is tolled on the death of senior members of the Royal Family, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dean of St Paul's, the Bishop of London or the Lord Mayor of London. 

The northwest tower houses a set of 12 bells. The largest among them, known as the 'Great Paul', was originally cast in 1882. This is the largest bell in England and weighs almost 17 tons. Unfortunately, Great Paul hasn’t been rung for several years because of a broken chiming mechanism.

St Paul’s Cathedral Art Project

St Paul’s Cathedral is home to a spectacular collection of art - from the delicate carvings of Grinling Gibbons in the quire to Sir James Thornhill's dome murals, Mother and Child: Hood by Henry Moore and also the Victorian mosaics. But more importantly, all through its existence, this art has managed to inspire and illuminate the Christian faith of visitors and also provide a focus for reflection, meditation and contemplation. 

With a goal to keep this channel of connection and communication open, St Paul's Cathedral offers the Visual Arts Programme. Through this programme the facility seeks to explore the encounter between art and faith, offering a powerful and challenging context with which artists can engage. Recent projects have included a series of interventions by artists including Rebecca Horn, Yoko Ono, Antony Gormley and Bill Viola - these have further enriched the daily pattern of worship in the Cathedral.

Frequently Asked Questions About St Paul’s Cathedral Architecture

Q. What is the architectural style of St Paul’s Cathedral?

A. St Paul’s Cathedral Architectural style is a mixture of Renaissance and English Baroque with Corinthian towers and columns in the façade.

Q. Who is the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral?

A. The current building of St Paul’s Cathedral was constructed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Q. When was St Paul’s Cathedral first built?

A. The oldest records of St Paul’s Cathedral dates back to 604 AD. The construction of the current building of St Paul’s Cathedral began in 1675 and was completed in 1710.

Q. How old is St Paul’s Cathedral?

A. The current building of St Paul’s Cathedral was consecrated in 1697 and is 325 years old. 

Q. How big is St Paul’s Cathedral?

A. At its tallest point, St Paul’s Cathedral is 365 ft. (111 m) tall. The length of the cathedral is 518 ft. (158 m) and the width across its transepts is 246 ft. (75 m).