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St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral was the symbolic heart of London — as well as a navigational landmark, commanding the high ground of Ludgate Hill. Venerable as it was, London’s cathedral was also badly in need of repair. Its medieval spire fell after being struck by lightning in 1561. There were repeated calls to rebuild in the following century. But the cathedral was not the seat of an archbishop, nor did it enjoy the particular largesse of the monarch. Changes in doctrine undermined St. Paul’s role as a unifying spiritual presence. It was only after the Great Fire of 1666 that the St. Paul’s we know today was built.

Pilkington. The burnynge of Paules church in London. London, 1563

Gipkyn. Old St Paul's. Oil on panel, 1616

Farley. St Paules-Church her bill for the Parliament. London, 1621

Charles I. Concerning the reparation of Saint Pauls Church. London, 1633

Dugdale. The history of St. Pauls Cathedral in London. London, 1658

Benlowes. On St. Paul's Cathedrall. London, 1658

Early views of London, including the map by Franz Hogenberg, can be dated pre- or post-1561 on the basis of their depiction of the medieval spire of St. Paul’s. The title page of James Pilkington's sermon expresses a common sentiment after the cathedral was struck by lightning and the spire collapsed. The burning of the cathedral was interpreted as God’s judgment. “Were these greater sinners, than the rest?” Pilkington asked. “No: I saye unto you except ye repent, ye shal all lykewyse peryshe.”


The damaged cathedral had its advocates for repair, Henry Farley among them. The painted diptych was part of Farley’s sustained campaign, and he also published a text which interpreted the diptych as “a Dreame in three parts.” James I was eventually persuaded to attend a sermon at Paul’s Cross by Bishop John King. James set up a commission to repair St. Paul's and appointed dignitaries to it. But plans for repairs faltered, and some of the marble was diverted to the water gate at York House, the riverfront home of the duke of Buckingham.


James’s son, Charles I, finally took up the cause of repairing the cathedral with a commission in 1633. Like all good patrons of a capital campaign, he contributed himself “a great summe of money out of Our owne Treasure, to bee imployed in that worke.” Londoners gave generously, too. The Chamber of London collected over £100,000 between 1631 and 1644. But contributions fell off, and work was suspended as the country fell into civil war.


The desire and the plans to rebuild were in place, as is shown in William Dugdale's History of St. Pauls. A view of the cathedral’s west front features the 1630s restoration work of architect Inigo Jones. The columns for the portico were reputed to be the largest in Europe at the time. The portico provided a practical alternative gathering place to the nave, known as Paul’s Walk. But the statues of King Charles I and his father King James I instead of saints caused controversy. The grandeur Jones achieved was short lived, in any event. During Oliver Cromwell’s rule, the great cathedral was reduced to stabling horses in the nave.


Edward Belowes' single sheet reduction seems to be the people’s version of William Dugdale’s deluxe tome. Or perhaps it was a promotional piece for the more expensive book. Whichever is the case, we see something of the circulation and reuse of images and an attempt to capture a market. The poem comments on the sad state of the cathedral. The signature Benevolus is a loose anagram of Edward Benlowes’s name, as well as a reference to the voluntary giving on which the cathedral depended.


Finally, in 1666, the Great Fire   badly damaged St. Paul’s. Christopher Wren was knighted for his proposals and models for a new cathedral. A tax on coal laid the financial foundations for rebuilding, and construction began in 1675. Wren’s son reported that when a stone was pulled from the rubble to mark the center of the dome, it was a fragment of a gravestone inscribed with the word “Resurgam,” or "I shall rise again.” By 1710, Wren’s magnificent dome — the first in England — commanded attention on its hilltop site, giving St. Paul's profile on London's landscape the look we still recognize today.

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