Following my theme of abbeys and cathedrals, my X is less about the letter and more about the shape. Most churches in the UK have the layout of the cross, known as the cruciform – cross-shaped. The eastern end points to the centre of the Christian world, as it was in ancient times – Jerusalem. The transepts arms: one to the north, the other the south, while the nave ends at the western front, usually the main entrance to the church.
The big challenge for early architects and stone masons was bridging the space of the crossing: the point where each arm of the church comes together. In England, this was traditionally done with a great tower or a spire topped tower. However, they didn’t always stand the test of time. Supporting structures were needed to hold them up and a few collapsed before they came up with the designs that stood the test of time. Ely‘s lantern design is a good example of trying out something different. It was built from wood and made to look like stone.
Given the challenges, not all crossing towers were built up high. St Magnus cathedral in Orkney, Scotland, is quite short and given the weather up there, not really surprising. However, height, as I explained in my Spires post is more about reaching for the heavens.
St Emundsbury cathedral in Bury St Edmunds was very late in getting its crossing tower – 2005. It isn’t a new church, it’s been there since 1503 when the nave was built. When King Edmund of the East Angles died, his martyrdom led to the foundation of a Benedictine abbey in the town. Several churches were built in the precincts of the abbey and one of these went onto be the cathedral, which was created in 1914 for the new diocese. The abbey has long disappeared and only remains as a public garden with few ruined walls. What the cathedral lacked was a tower.
The new tower, known as the Millennium Tower, is built from limestone and funded by the legacy of an architect. Its vaulted ceiling wasn’t finished until 2010 and splendidly colourful. So better late than never!
Towers weren’t the only way of breaching the crossing. From the Renaissance period onwards, domes became increasingly popular, especially in Europe. When Old St Paul’s Cathedral burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666, a replacement cathedral was needed. Designs were submitted and Christopher Wren was chosen to rebuild the iconic cathedral.
It needed to impress. The City of London is one of the smallest cities in the world and known as the Square Mile (it’s also a county). The old Roman walls are still visible in places, the often enveloped by a modern buildings. Historically, the strategic importance of the City is highlighted by the Tower of London, but today it is the centre of the financial district rather than a military base. With a small population, it has its own police force and ceremonial Lord Mayor. The historical heartland of London lies in the City of London. Beyond the walls, there is the political and cultural heartland of Westminster, the West End and the boroughs where the population boomed. The cathedral manages to keep its place in the midst of skyscrapers thanks largely to the dome Wren built over the crossing.
The site of St Paul’s is one of the highest in the City and a church dedicated to St Paul can be traced back to the location since 604AD. Until 1967, Wren’s St Paul, at 111m / 365 ft, was the tallest building in London. The building was financed by a tax on coal and completed within the architect’s lifetime – quite an achievement given most cathedrals took so long to build, the masons never saw their creations finished. The final stone of the lantern, which sits on top of the dome, was placed in 1708. Wren was prolific and rebuilt 51 churches destroyed by the Great Fire. Sadly many of these were destroyed in the Blitz.
The dome rises up on the support of eight arches and is 34 m / 112 ft wide. There are 259 steps from ground level to Whispering Gallery, so called because it enhances the acoustics, enabling a whisper to be heard around the dome’s wall. The interior of the dome is painted with eight depictions of the life of St Paul. The paintings themselves create an illusion of architecture that isn’t actually there.
St Paul’s with its Baroque style is so very different from Medieval churches. It probably was needed. Something striking to survive the rise of modern architecture. Without the dome, it might have disappeared altogether amongst the skyscrapers.