A Mere Shadow

by

The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed more than a third of the city of London including the famed St. Paul’s Cathedral overlooking the Thames. The earliest sanctuary on the site had been erected sometime in the first decade of the seventh century. It had been substantially refurbished and expanded at least four times — in 675 following a devastating fire, in 962 following the rampages of the Vikings, in 1087 following the Norman conquest, and in 1561 following storm damage to the nave and cloister. But it was obvious to all that the seventeenth-century fire was so devastating that mere repairs would simply not be sufficient. The cathedral would have to be entirely redesigned and reconstructed. King Charles II appointed his friend Christopher Wren (1632–1723) chief architect of the vast project.

Although he had no formal training as an architect, Wren was renowned as an engineering genius. He had already made significant contributions to sundry practical sciences and built a wide variety of public works. As assistant to an eminent anatomist, Wren developed skills as an experimental, scientific thinker. In 1657, when he was still just twenty-five years old, Wren was appointed the Gresham Professor of Astronomy in London. Four years later he became the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.

But his greatest contributions would not be made as a mentor of students at the university or as a pioneer in the fledgling new science of astrophysics. Instead, in 1663, he discovered his true calling when his uncle, the Bishop of Ely, asked him to design a new chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge. This was his first foray into architecture, but it proved to be such a stunning success that it was quickly followed by a flurry of new commissions.

Following the Great Fire, Charles II appointed Wren the Surveyor General of the King’s Works. In that capacity, the young visionary presented a utopian scheme to rebuild the entire city. Political intrigue, petty jealousy, and substantial theological disputes caused the royal oversight committee to set the grand plan aside and to focus solely on a handful of special projects — including the cathedral.

Wren’s simple and elegant proposals were fiercely contested by the committee which engineered its own plan. Wren, a patient, practical man, reluctantly agreed to the committee’s plan with the stipulation that he be allowed to make such modifications as might prove necessary during the actual construction. The finished work was, in fact, almost identical to his own original design. Of course, Wren’s wry machinations hardly endeared him to the committee — despite his obvious brilliance, they determined to remove him from consideration for any future royal commissions.

Controversy dogged the architect from beginning to end. The jealous magistrates boycotted even the groundbreaking and cornerstone ceremonies. There was no special service. There was no fanfare. There was no dedicatory speech. There was no citywide ceremony. It was almost as if a warehouse was being constructed, not the city’s cathedral.

Nevertheless, Wren’s project was imminently successful. Few cathedrals are built in a lifetime — the previous Norman renovations of St. Paul’s had taken some two centuries to complete. But Wren was able to complete the project in just 35 years. As in so many of his other projects the preaching of the Gospel was the primary focus of the design. As a result, he designed the interior so that the pulpit would be the center of attention. He paid close attention to lines of sight. The great dome, which weighs some 65,000 tons and rises nearly three-hundred and fifty feet above the cruciform nave, amazingly never distracts — rather, it bestows the entire building with dignity, grace, and gravitas while providing it with a rich acoustic resonance.

For Wren, the Reformational doctrines of grace and an incumbent emphasis on primacy of preaching — which he determinedly and diligently wove into the his practical designs — was apparently the direct result of his understanding of several passages of Scripture inscribed in his notes, journals, and plans (including Heb. 4:12, 10:19–25, 13:7–8, and 13:14–17). It was almost as if like Moses before him, Wren somehow had caught a glimpse of God’s eternal purpose and then attempted to make it manifest “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; Heb. 8:1–5;). As if to underscore that notion, he often was heard to say that at best St. Paul’s would serve only as “a mere shadow” of the more glorious “heavenly things.”

After his death Sir Christopher Wren was interred in an honored grave beneath the soaring stones of his magnum opus. The inscription on his grave simply reads, “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” “If you would see his monument, look around.” Indeed, the rocks and stones of St. Paul’s Cathedral resound with the jubilant “Hosannas” of Wren’s Reformed credo.

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