Inside The Model Of St Paul’s
Simon Carter, Keeper of Collections at St Paul’s
In a hidden chamber within the roof of St Paul’s sits Christopher Wren’s 1:25 model of the cathedral, looking for all the world like the largest jelly mould you ever saw. When Charles II examined it in the Chapter House of old St Paul’s, he was so captivated by Wren’s imagination as manifest in this visionary prototype that he awarded him the job of constructing the new cathedral.
More than three hundred years later, Wren’s model still works its magic upon the spectator, as I discovered last week when I was granted the rare privilege of climbing inside to glimpse the view that held the King spellbound. While there is an austere splendour to the exterior of the model, I discovered the interior contains a heart-stopping visual device which was surely the coup that persuaded Charles II of Wren’s genius.
Yet when I entered the chamber in the triforium at St Paul’s to view the vast wooden model, I had no idea of the surprise that awaited me inside. Almost all the paint has gone from the exterior now, giving the dark wooden model the look of an absurdly-outsized piece of furniture but, originally, it was stone-coloured with a grey roof to represent the lead.
At once, you are aware of significant differences between this prototype and the cathedral that Wren built. To put it bluntly, the model looks like a dog’s dinner of pieces of Roman architecture, with a vast portico stuck on the front of the dome of St Peter’s in the manner of those neo-Georgian porches on Barratt Houses. Imagine a fervent hobbyist chopping up models of relics of classical antiquity and rearranging them, and this is the result. It is unlikely that this design would even have stood up if it had been built, so fanciful is the conception. Yet the long process of designing a viable structure, once he had been given instruction by Charles II, permitted Wren to reconcile all the architectural elements into the satisfying whole that we know today.
I had been tempted to visit the cathedral by an invitation to go inside the model but – studying it – I could not imagine how that could be possible. I could not see a way in. ‘Perhaps one end has hinges and Charles II crawled in on his hands and knees like a child entering a Wendy House?,‘ I was thinking, when Simon Carter, Keeper of Collections opened a door in the plinth and disappeared inside, gesturing me to follow. In blind faith, I dipped my head and walked inside.
When I stood up, I was beneath the dome with the floor of the cathedral at my chest height. There was just room for two people to stand together and I imagined the unexpected moment of intimacy between the Monarch and his architect, yet I believe Wren was quietly confident because he had a trick up his sleeve. From the inside, the drama of the architecture is palpable, with intersecting spaces leading off in different directions, and – as your eyes accustom to the gloom – you grow aware of the myriad refractions of light within this intricately-imagined interior.
Just as Wren directed Charles II, Simon Carter told me to walk to the far end of the model and sit on the bench placed there to bring my eye level down to the point of view of someone entering through the great west door. Then Simon left me there inside, just as I believe Wren left Charles II within the model, to appreciate the full effect.
I have no doubt the King was thrilled by this immersive experience, which quickly takes on a convincing reality of its own once you are alone. Charles II discovered himself confronted by a glorious vision of the future in which he was responsible for the first and greatest classically-designed church in this country, with the largest dome ever built. Such is the nature of the consciousness-filling reverie induced by sitting inside the model that the outside world recedes entirely.
How astonishing, once you have accustomed to the scale of the model, when a giant face appears filling the east window. I could not resist a gasp of wonder when I saw it and neither – I suggest – could Charles II when Christopher Wren’s smiling face appeared, grinning at him from the opposite end of the nave, apparently enlarged to twenty-five times its human scale.
In these unforgettable circumstances, the King could not avoid the realisation that Wren was a colossus among architects and – unquestionably – the man for the job of building the new St Paul’s Cathedral. The model had worked its spell.
Behold, the largest jelly mould in the world!
The belfry that was never built
The single portico that was replaced by a two storey version
Just a few fragments of paintwork remain upon the exterior
Original paintwork can be seen inside the model
Charles II’s point of view from inside the model
‘How astonishing, once you have accustomed to the scale of the model, when a giant face appears filling the east window.’
You may like to read my other stories of St Paul’s