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Inside The Model Of St Paul’s

July 10, 2020
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 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


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

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Su C permalink
    July 10, 2020

    What fun! Lucky lucky you!

  2. July 10, 2020

    Wow! That is truly awesome. Thank you so much for sharing an amazing experience

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 10, 2020

    Yup – I would love to have the chance to go inside the model!

    As a model maker myself I am 100% in favour of making actual 3D models of any proposed development or set design as it is by far the best way of showing people how it will look in reality and from different angles. Virtual 3D images are helpful but are never as good – especially if one could actual step inside the model as per St Pauls.

    Models are also of course the best way to see what works in the design and what needs altering – it is much easier to change the model than the building!

  4. Amanda permalink
    July 10, 2020

    Your writing worked its spell this morning, bringing one of my Bucket List dreams (almost) to life with your vivid detail.

    In December l went to St Paul’s just to see the model, asking the cheery security guard outside if possible without touring the cathedral again.
    In his strong Russian accent he advised checking online for the “triforium’s” next opening in Spring and chatted with me about his vast historical knowledge of my City, thus the day was far from disappointing. He told me of the lumps of ancient stone & artefacts lying about casually on open shelves and the unique wondrous bookish smell of the library of extremely old tomes.

    Sadly, so far this year, The Virus has prevented my return but l do have the answer to my own wonderment on how one fits inside like a Lilliputian.

  5. July 10, 2020

    Always great to see this – and to see it so beautifully photographed, an art in itself.

    My own mentor modelmaker tutor, George Rome Innes (ex-Arup and quite the authority on the Great Model) arranged for me to see it early in my career as inspiration for the Henbury Hall Palladian model (built in Spitalfields’ Brune Street in the mid-eighties). Not many people know that.

    Nowadays, most, if not all, think that the Great Model’s skills are lost forever. Not so. Not yet.

    Quite recently, I and my teammates built a model of Westminster Abbey and presented at Buckingham Palace.

    Not many people know that.

  6. David Antscherl permalink
    July 10, 2020

    Like Jill, I am a professional model-maker and was aware of the Wren model. However, I did not know that one could ‘tour’ inside it in the manner described and shown. It’s a 17th century ‘fly-through’ of the architectural proposal. What a brilliant way to ‘sell’ the project!

  7. July 10, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the tour of the St. Paul’s Cathedral model. Fascinating.

    Christopher Wren’s (1632-1723) career was amazing, including having designed some 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666. A few years back I stumbled into one of his smaller churches, St. Martin within Ludgate, on Fleet Street a short distance from St. Paul’s. I wandered in, enjoying the intimacy of the small space. I recall the “bread shelves” among the pews to hold donations for the poor.

    St. Martin’s steeple is spiky, providing a contrast to the circular dome of St. Paul’s just down the way.

    Missing London today …

  8. July 10, 2020

    I seriously love that this exists. What a treasure! Wren’s churches are true delights. Don’t forget the one in the West end.

    Lucky you!!!

  9. July 10, 2020

    Beautiful Model of St. Pauls Church. Thank You So Much!!??????

  10. Dr Jonathan van Halbert permalink
    July 11, 2020

    How wonderful to see the domes that my father walked as a young Fire Warden during the blitz.. The sound of the Doodle Bugs remained with him throughout his life… Where would they next land??….

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