Sitting at the highest point of the city of London is one of the city’s most famous and recognizable sights. St. Paul’s Cathedral has dominated the skyline for 300 years and is the second largest church building in the United Kingdom. The cathedral holds a significant place in the UK’s national identity. This iconic church is one of the many works designed from the brilliant mind of one man, often considered the greatest British architect of all time. Christopher Wren designed the masterpiece known as St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1673. The designer, astronomer, and mathematician also designed 52 other churches and numerous other buildings, including the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. In addition to his architectural efforts, Wren was highly regarded for his scientific work, earning praise from Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton.
Early Life and Education
Christopher Wren was born on October 20, 1632 in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, and was the only surviving son of Christopher Wren Sr. and Mary Cox. His father was the rector of Knoyle and would later be Dean of Windsor. Christopher was a sickly child but would survive into sturdy old age. His education began at home with a private tutor and his father’s instruction. After Christopher Sr.’s royal appointment as Dean of Windsor in March 1635, the family spent part of each year in Windsor, but little is known about young Christopher’s life at Windsor. During his youth, Wren received a thorough instruction in Latin and also learned to draw. His ability to draw was put to academic use in the form of anatomical drawings for Cerebri Anatome (1664), the anatomy textbook of the brain. During his youth, Wren showed an interest in the design and construction of mechanical instruments.
On June 25, 1650, Wren enrolled and entered Wadham College, Oxford. Here he studied Latin and the works of Aristotle. He graduated B.A. in 1651 and received his M.A. two years later. At this point he was a pure scientist, focused on anatomy, physics, and astronomy. He experimented with submarine design and the design of telescopes. At age 25, he was appointed professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London. Four years later he was appointed professor of astronomy at Oxford. In 1662, Wren was a founding member of the Royal Society, England’s premier scientific body.
Wren’s observations of the moon lead to the invention of micrometers for the telescope. He also constructed a transparent beehive for scientific observation and had taken part in medical experiments at Wadham College. At Wadham he performed the first successful injection of a substance into the bloodstream (of a dog).
During his time at Gresham college, Wren did experiments involving the use of magnetic variation and lunar observation to determine longitude and help with navigation. Other areas in which he experimented and contributed included muscle functionality and optics.
It was from his study of physics and engineering that Wren’s interest in architecture developed. During his time, the profession of architecture as we understand it today did not exist. It was not uncommon for well educated young men to take up architecture as a gentlemanly activity, considering it was widely accepted as a branch of applied mathematics. While a student at Oxford, Wren became familiar with the fundamentals of architectural design. His first architectural project was the chapel of Pembroke College in Cambridge, done at the request of his uncle, the Bishop of Ely, in 1663. The second project was the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and this was completed in 1668. This design was a combination of classical and modern approach, influenced by the form of the ancient Theatre of Marcellus in Rome.
The highlight of Wren’s architectural reputation has always been St. Paul’s Cathedral. He also had numerous major secular commissions, showing the variety and maturity of his architecture. Many of these commissions were received during the 1670’s, a time of many remarkable designs for him. These designs include the Royal Observatory and the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge. The 1680’s saw more significant designs, including the King’s House between 1683 and 1685, Winchester, where Charles II intended to spend his declining years. This was never completed, as Charles II died in 1685. He also took on designing Kensington Palace and Hampton Court.
Christopher Wren died on February 25, 1723 at the age of 90. At this point, newer generations of architects were beginning to look past his style. By the 20th century, the potency of his influence on English architecture had been reduced, and his work gradually stopped being perceived as a source of examples applicable to contemporary design. However, he is still revered as a great architect and his work (especially St. Paul’s Cathedral) still stands today as spectacles from his genius. Wren’s gravestone features a Latin inscription which translates as: ‘If you seek his memorial, look about you.’
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