Designing St Paul's Cathedral

Fir Brit London Great Fire 1666LIFE Photo Collection

The Great Fire of London

The City of London was devastated by The Great Fire of London in September 1666. 

LIFE Photo Collection

One of the great losses in the inferno was the cathedral which had stood at the top of Ludgate Hill for over five hundred years.

The building was already in poor condition and Christopher Wren has been asked to propose repair work just weeks before the fire ravaged the City.

Sir Christopher Wren (1711/1800) by Copy after Godfrey KnellerSt. Paul's Cathedral

Enter Sir Christopher Wren

Christopher Wren  (1632-1723) is one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history. He studied physics, mathematics and astronomy at Oxford University and, although the profession of architect did not exist as it is understood today, he pursued an interest in french and Italian architecture. 

Bust of Christopher Wren (1950/1980) by Copy after Edward PearceSt. Paul's Cathedral

He was 39 years old when first engaged with restoring the Pre-Fire cathedral, the reconstruction of St Paul's after 1666 spanned the length of his career and the building is considered to be his masterpiece.

Perspective of The Great Model (1710/1800) by Jacob SchynvoetSt. Paul's Cathedral

Designing a new cathedral for London

Reconstruction of the First Model of Cathedral Design Proposal (1671) by Sir Christopher WrenSt. Paul's Cathedral

Wren's first model for a new cathedral

This wooden model, in St Paul's Cathedral Collections, is all that survives of Wren's first complete design for a new St Paul's. It was lost for many years and rediscovered in 1935. 

If built, this cathedral would have taken the form of an oblong basilica and would have been similar in appearance to St James, Piccadilly in London.

A unique feature for an ecclesiastical building in England at this time, was the inclusion of an arcaded, ground-level loggia, a covered walk way, around the base of the building.

Study for Great Model: Plan of North West CornerSt. Paul's Cathedral

Design drawing for Wren's Great Model

This drawing is probably by Christopher Wren. It develops his design from a building in the form of a Greek cross, in which the four arms of the structure are the same dimensions, towards his Great Model design with an extended nave. 

The western range in this design probably represents the addition of the 'library body and portico' to the design of the model recorded by Robert Hooke in early February 1673.

Ground plan of The Great Model, From the collection of: St. Paul's Cathedral
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The Great Model (1647) by Sir Christopher Wren, Edward Woodroffe, and William CleereSt. Paul's Cathedral

The Great Model

Having created a set of drawings, Wren had William and Richard Cleere produce a model to his design.

Interior view of The Great ModelSt. Paul's Cathedral

At 627 cm long and 368 cm high the model is one of the largest in Great Britain. It was designed to be walked through at eye level to suggest the experience of the real interior.

It took a year to build between September 1673 and October 1674 and cost the same as a good London house.

Made largely of oak, with some plaster elements, it was originally painted white to represent Portland stone with a blue dome, to represent lead.

Step inside the Great Model!

Fictive view of Wren's Great Model built in stone (1990)St. Paul's Cathedral

This water colour painting shows what St Paul's cathedral would look like  if Christopher Wren had completed the building to the Great Model design. Although they are superficially similar, there are significant difference between the Great Model design and the cathedral as it was finally built.

Top Euro (Bri-E) London Churches St.Pauls Cathedral, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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This shows the Cathedral as built, with a two storey west front, side bell towers and an extended drum for the dome.

Finished study for the upper transept end and portico, in half-elevation, half-plan, long section and internal end-elevation (1685) by Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Unidentified DraughtsmanSt. Paul's Cathedral

Refining the plans

The Model was a presentation piece designed to show the appearance of what Wren was proposing. There are several structural elements which work at this scale in wood but which would not have been possible if built, actual size, in stone. When Wren started designing in earnest he, and his assistants, had a lot of working out to do. 

Plan of the south-east quarter of the crossing at church-floor level, 1675, nearly as built (1690/1694) by Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Unidentified DraughtsmanSt. Paul's Cathedral

Many plans, drawings and architectural models were made as the Wren Office explored how the building could be achieved. 226 drawings survive in the cathedral collection, some are by Wren himself, and at least thirteen other individuals, who helped to design the cathedral, have been identified, including: Nicholas Hawksmoor, Edward Woodroofe and Edward Pearce.

Model of One Bay of Choir Arcade with Choir Stalls (1696)St. Paul's Cathedral

The Quire was the most significant part of the Cathedral, the most sacred space, and Wren concentrated on completing this area first. This model shows one of the Quire arches and the start of the wooden stalls benches could slide into the sockets seen at the base.

Elevation and section of the east side of the west range of the choir stalls including the organ (1693/1694) by Nicholas HawksmoorSt. Paul's Cathedral

The sculptor Grinling Gibbons, not only carved magnificent decoration for the Quire, but he helped Wren to design how it would fit in with the building as a whole. This drawing, by Gibbons, is a proposal for the organ case and Quire screen beneath.

Bishop Henry Compton (1710) by John HargraveSt. Paul's Cathedral

Wren was working for a group called the Church Commissioners, who came together to oversee the rebuilding of the cathedral. Henry Compton, Bishop of London from 1675-1713 took a keen interest. His portrait, in which he holds drawing of St Paul's bears the inscription "I came to it burnt down and I left it built up". 

Perspective of a dome with a 24-by upper peristyle and an octagonal, concave-sided lower peristyle and drum (1690/1691) by Christopher Wren and Nicholas HawksmoorSt. Paul's Cathedral

The design of the dome was a particular challenge for Christopher Wren. It was a radically new type of architecture for England, so innovative that he had to continuously rework the design as the building was going up. He called on the expertise of friends in the Royal Society, such as Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, for help.

Composite half-section, half-plan and half elevation of two versions of a 16-bay dome (1680/1689) by Nicholas HawksmoorSt. Paul's Cathedral

This drawing from the 1680s was made when the cathedral had been built up to the base of the drum of the dome. Here you can see the inner and outer domes which Wren wished to build but at this stage the addition of a brick cone between the two domes, to take the weight of the lantern, has yet to be thought of.

The Nave of St Paul's Cathedral, looking east (1710/1715)St. Paul's Cathedral

Completing construction

In 1710, Christopher Wren watched his son, also called Christopher, put the final stone in place. The design and build of the cathedral had taken just 35 years and Londoners flocked to enjoy the remarkable new building. 

Wren frequently returned to sit beneath the dome and contemplate his masterpiece.


Wren did not want an elaborate memorial. His brief epitaph translates as: Reader if you seek a monument, look around you.

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