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Inside The Model Of St Paul’s

January 13, 2019
by the gentle author

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.’

Click here to book for a tour of the Triforium at St Paul’s Cathedral

Click here for events commemorating the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire

You may like to read my other stories of St Paul’s

Maurice Sills, Cathedral Treasure

The Broderers of St Paul’s

Relics of Old St Paul’s in New St Paul’s

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 13, 2019

    Oh Wow! Wow WOW!! That is amazing…

    As a professional designer/model maker myself I am firm believer in how effective a 3D version of a proposed design can be as lots of people can’t read drawings and plans, and you can ‘travel’ around the model to see things from different angles. But to be able to actually get inside the scale model would be mind blowing!

    How lucky are you to have shared Charles 11′s spellbinding experience…

  2. January 13, 2019

    Such a special post about such a special place: treasure

  3. Laura Williamson permalink
    January 13, 2019

    What a fascinating experience to have. I must say, the thought of the hulking (for the 17th century) 6 foot 2 Charles II, complete with heeled shoes and large wig, crawling in is a great image!

    I wonder if it in any way reminded him of hiding in priest holes during his escape after the battle of Worcester…

  4. January 13, 2019

    You always take us to the MOST amazing places! The concept of the “giant face in the window”
    just made me gleeful. Not only is this a stunning object — but the story-behind-the-model is full of fascination and historical nuance. In other words: Ve-ry Spitalfields Life! Thrilled to have the joy of discovery today, thanks to you.

    You are a gem.

  5. Geoff Nicholls permalink
    January 13, 2019

    I think I heard, in a tv documentary, that Wren’s original design included the dome, but that feature was rejected. Wren was instructed to build it without a dome, but the contract allowed him to make any changes he thought necessary. So Wren just built it to his original spec, keeping the dome secret until it was obvious for all to see. By which time it was a fait accompli, and won the doubters over.
    However, I may have mis-remembered this story, does anyone else know if it’s true or not?

  6. Sarah Johnson permalink
    January 13, 2019

    What an amazing experience you had … thanks for sharing the insights and the photos.

  7. January 14, 2019

    Excellent!

  8. Charles Hall permalink
    January 23, 2019

    Fascinating. I wondered if you’d come across Ned Ward’s account of walking through the cathedral while it was still built, published in his ‘London Spy’, 1698-1700: http://grubstreetproject.net/works/T119938?image=107&display=text#notes-1
    The most nearly relevant part of his description is his amusement at the workmen who, he claimed, were spinning the work out quite unnecessarily – and his remarks about the way a small fire was interpreted by some as evidence of God’s attitude to the evils of church music. This hostility takes a slightly different form in this conversation with the son of a one-time Cromwellian (and I’m sorry this is so long…):
    ‘As we were thus gazing with great Satisfaction, at the Wondrous Effects of Humane Industry; raising our Thoughts by degrees, to the Marvelous Works of Omnipotence, from those of his Creatures, we Ob­serv’d an Old Country Fellow leaning upon his Stick, and staring with great Amazement up towards Hea­ven, thro’ the Circle from whence the Arch is to be turn’d: Seeing him fix’d in such a ruminating Po­sture, I was desirous of knowing his Serious Thoughts, in order to discover which, I ask’d him his Opinion of this Noble Building; and how he lik’d the Church? Church! reply’d he, ’tis no more like a Church than I am. Ads-heart! Its more by half like a Goose Pye I have seen at my Landlords; and this Embroider’d hole in the middle of the Top, is like the Place in the upper Crust, where they put in the Butter. I could not forbear laughing at the odness of Slouch’s Notion; and hoping to hear some­thing further from him that might give us a little Di­version, we continued his Company. Prithee, said I, honest Country-man, since thou do’st not believe it to be a Church, what place do’st thou take it to be? Why, says he, I’ll warrant you now thou think’st me to be such an Arrant Fool I can’t tell, but thou art mistaken; for my Vather was a Trooper to Oliver Cromwell, and I have heard him say many a time, he has set up his Horse here; and do you think the Lord will ever Dwell in a House made out of a Stable? That was done, said I, by a parcel of Rebelious People, who had got the upper-hand of the Government; and car’d not what Murder, Sacriledge, Treason, and Mischief they Committed: But it was a Church before it was converted to that Heathenish use, and so it is now. Why then, says Roger, I think in good Truth the Cavaliers are as much too blame in making a Church of a Stable, as the Roundheads were, in making a Stable of a Church; and there’s a Rowland for your Oliver; and so good-by to you. Away he trudg’d, like the true Off-spring of Schismatical and Rebellious Ancestors; expressing in his looks no little Malice and Contempt towards the Magnificency of the Buil­ding, which they have been always ready to deface, when they have had any opportunity.’

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