on April 1, 2012
St Paul's Cathedral is quite possibly the most beautiful building in London. We lived within a half-hour walk of St Paul's for several months, and on some days I ended up walking home from the bus-stop near the Cathedral, I can't recall why, now, but I do remember seeing that building in all weathers, at all times of day (and night) and in various seasons. At first I wasn't sure: I am not that fond of monumental buildings, and Rome's St Peter's, although both impressive and fascinating, left me aesthetically less-than-awed. But, imperceptibly, St Paul's beauty crept up on me. I remember seeing the silhouette of the church one evening, almost-black purple on the background of almost-purple evening sky, and feeling deep gratefulness that I was given the chance to see it. There has been a church here for over 15 centuries, but the current building dates to Christopher Wren's massive building programme after the Great Fire that ravaged the City in 1666. It is the seat of the Bishop of London and a massive,monumental church with second-largest dome in the world and it is a focus of English (and British) national pride as well as being one of the icons of London. During the WW2 it was symbolic of London's resistance during the Blitz, and it was (and remains) a place for many state occasions, from the funerals of Nelson and Churchill to Jubilee celebrations as well as – in hindsight - less worthy occasions like the overt-the-top wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.Wren submitted many proposals for the replacement church before a design was accepted, and even his final project – so-called Warrant Design – was substantially changed during the construction which took over 20 years. Wren employed Nicholas Hawksmoor, the future architect of several other outstanding churches of the era, as his principal assistant. St Paul's is usually classified as an example of late Renaissance or ''rationalised'' English Baroque. English Baroque had, on the surface, little to do with the often overblown and breathlessly ornamental designs of continental Baroque (although there were great variations in that as well between various regions). English Baroque, best exemplified by Christopher Wren's body of work, has more to do with the preceding Renaissance (Palladian) styles and the following neo-Classical (Palladian revival). Baroque proper never really caught on in Britain, partially because its associations with triumphant Catholicism, and partially because of the English distaste for histrionic overstatement so characteristic of that style. What Wren (and other architects of the period) took from the Continental Baroque designs was a dynamic equilibrium of changing views, a spirit of construction rather then a specific style or shape. St Paul's remains a fantastically successful realisation of this fusion of neo-classical and Baroque principles. The dome is a signature part of the Cathedral, 108m tall to the cross at the top and visible from many places around the City. It actually wasn't included in Wren's Warrant design, which instead had a lantern with a small dome, topped by a pagoda-like spire. The final dome is a three-layer construction, which balances the needs of distance-viewing (fulfilled by the large outer dome) with the internally pleasing design (smaller inner dome). The lantern is actually supported by structural cone between the two domes. Whispering gallery (a high climb, and a bit claustrophobic, but worth it) runs around the inner dome. The interior of St Paul's is not as special as the outside, although still an impressive and beautiful sight. The Baroque influence is much more apparent here, and the dome is magnificent. Whether the interior visit is worth the entry charge of almost 15 GBP depends on your budget, really, but the dome climb and the dome galleries (whispering, stone and golden) are worth doing if your budget allows. Family ticket of 35 GBP effectively admits one child free (though under 6-year olds don't pay anyway), while gift-aiding gives a 12 months' pass. Perhaps the best way to see the interior – without the Crypt and Galleries, though – is to attend a service at St Paul's. It's still very much a living church, with hourly prayer and daily services. The Cathedral closes for sight-seeing at 4.30pm Monday to Saturday and is devoted to worship all Sunday. Evensong is sung daily, usually at 5pm and there are also morning (Matins) and mid-day Eucharist services. Music is important here, and St Paul's Choir is known for its excellence, and even if you are not a Christian, it's a spiritual and aesthetic experience worth making time for.
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