Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was a miraculous human being.
If central London were obliterated by a sudden disaster nowadays, it’s unlikely that its restoration would be entrusted to a professor of astronomy, but after the Great Fire in 1666 it was the obvious solution. At that time the best professionals to employ in construction were academics who understood the physics of making buildings stand up.
King Charles II had already consulted Wren, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, over several projects, including a much-needed restoration of the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral, when two-thirds of the City was burnt down in five days beginning in the early hours of September 2nd 1666. Wren surveyed the wreckage, mapped out a comprehensive, radical plan to rebuild and laid it before the King on September 11th. This adventurous scheme was scuppered because it necessitated wholesale revision of property boundaries.
Nevertheless, Wren – then in his mid-thirties – spent the rest of his long life embellishing London with replacements for the many destroyed parish churches and constructing his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral.
One of these parish churches is distinctive as what Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described as “a try-out for St Paul’s”.
The site of the medieval St Stephen’s Walbrook was hemmed in on three sides by other buildings and the street, which takes its name from the now-hidden river that runs south into the Thames. On part of this footprint Wren laid out his biggest London parish church to a largely symmetrical plan and graced it with a top-lit dome.
Pevsner describes in intricate detail the tension Wren contrived between the visitor’s perception of a longitudinal rectangular interior and the overarching centrality of the dome and its supporting columns [Simon Bradley & Nikolaus Pevsner,The Buildings of England: London 1: The City of London (Yale University Press 2002), pp 260-261].
It’s a breathtaking space which, despite repeated restorations, retains the integrity of Wren’s intentions in all respects but one.
In 1987 the churchwarden, Peter Palumbo (b 1935), supervised a much-needed refurbishment and reordered the layout, reducing the linearity that Wren intended and emphasising the space beneath the dome.
Lord Palumbo (as he became in 1991) had commissioned the sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) to design a white polished stone altar that sits directly beneath the dome. It gives priest and people the more direct intimacy that suits present-day worship, and contributes to the lively ministry of a London church, which has few if any resident parishioners, literally next door to the Mansion House.
I saw a well-attended weekday lunchtime Choral Eucharist sung by a youthful choir of organ scholars accompanied by the demure playing of a young lady organist. The place clearly serves the needs of a community of city workers seeking a calming interlude in their working day. I wish I could have caught the monthly Rush Hour Jazz.
There’s a lot going on at St Stephen Walbrook: St Stephen Walbrook London – a place of celebration. It’s the living testament of St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words”.