European Architecture Series
Sir Christopher Wren

Biography of English Baroque Architect.

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St Paul's Cathedral (1674-1711).

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)


Christopher Wren's Architecture
St Paul's Cathedral
Buildings Designed by Christopher Wren
Other Baroque Architects

For a short guide to terminology
see: Architecture Glossary.

Christopher Wren's Architecture

Best known as one of England's greatest architects, Sir Christopher Wren was also a Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, a scientist much admired by Sir Isaac Newton involved in biology, mechanics and optics, as well as a member of parliament and a founder of the Royal Society (President in 1680–82). Acquiring an interest in architecture at the age of 30 from a study of the Roman architect Vitruvius (78-10 BCE) and works by Inigo Jones (1573-1652), his masterpiece is his design of St Paul's Cathedral (1674-1711) in London, which he designed and built after the Great Fire (1666), along with some 50 other churches in his role as King's Surveyor of Works. Other examples of his English Baroque architecture include: Kensington Palace (1689–96) and the south facade of Hampton Court Palace - both designed for William of Orange - the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (1663), the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich (1696-1712), and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (1675). Regarded today as the greatest of English Baroque architects, he depended nevertheless on other designers at the Royal Works, notably Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) and John Vanbrugh (1664-1726).


Educated in Latin and physics at the University of Oxford, where he was a member of the progressive Wilkins circle made up of mathematicians, artists and philosophers, he was elected a fellow of All Souls College, after which he became Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London (1657), and later Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford (1661).

About 1665, not long after he began to show an interest in architecture, he was approached concerning the redesign of a rather shabby St Paul's Cathedral. In the same year he visited Paris where he met Bernini (1598-1680) and saw his designs for the new Louvre. Although the following year the Great Fire of London (1666) destroyed both the cathedral and two-thirds of the city, Wren's design was eventually accepted and in 1669 he became Surveyor of Works to King Charles II. In this role he oversaw the huge task of rebuilding much of the city, and took direct responsibility for St Paul's and some 50 other churches, all of which was financed by a new tax on coal. In 1673, Wren was knighted for his architectural services.

After the age of 60, Sir Christoper Wren reduced his architectural work considerably, while still playing an influential role in several royal commissions. He was appointed Surveyor of Greenwich Naval Hospital (1696), and Surveyor of Westminster Abbey (1698). He died at the age of 90 and was buried in St Paul's.

St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's - which spanned almost the whole of Wren's architectural career (1674-1711) - is the high point of the short-lived English Baroque, a style regarded with distrust in Protestant England because of its association with Catholicism and the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation. It is a striking paradox of this supremely harmonious building that Wren was able to persuade a Protestant clergy to accept such a Baroque structure. For all its air of classical serenity, St Paul's is the product of compromise - between Wren's hopes of building a centralized church, classical in every sense, and the Protestant insistence on a longitudinal church with nave, aisles and choir to suit the needs of Protestant ritual. Yet there can be few longitudinal churches with such unmistakable centralizing tendencies. The nave, for example, is only one bay longer than the choir. Further, the immense dome 112 feet in diameter and carried on eight huge piers, dominates the interior. There is no sense of these conflicts on the astonishingly rhythmic exterior, the whole arranged over two storeys. Yet the upper storey of the nave and choir is no more than a screen to disguise the one-storey aisles. The dome - which rivals, and in many respects exceeds, anything built in Rome, like the dome of St Peter's Basilica - sits on a high drum, soars over the building as once it soared over the London skyline. It was the model for The Pantheon in Paris, designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713-80). (For another iconic work of neoclassical architecture, see the imposing Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808).) In St Paul's and several other palaces and churches, Wren collaborated with the celebrated English virtuoso wood carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).

Other Buildings Designed by Christopher Wren

Wren's first design project concerned the chapel of Pembroke College Cambridge, which he completed in 1663 at the request of his uncle, the Bishop of Ely. His second was the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (1663), a building gifted to the university by Archbishop Sheldon, which Wren designed in the form of a classical Roman temple, after the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. For more about classical designs see also: Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE) and Roman Architecture (400 BCE - 400 CE).

Wren's other major commissions of the 1670s and 1680s included the following:

- Church of St James, London (1674-87)
- Royal Observatory, Greenwich (1675)
- Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge (1676–84)
- Church of St Clement Danes, London (1680)
- Royal Chelsea Hospital, London (1681)
- Kensington Palace (1689–96)
- Hampton Court Palace (south facade, 1689–1702)
- Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich (1696-1712)


A genius of the late 17th century, Wren lived too long for his own good. By the time he died, his style was already considered old fashioned, as Neoclassical architecture gradually intruded into the national aesthetic. St Paul's Cathedral, however, remained an iconic structure: its influence can be seen, for instance, in the church of Sainte-Genevieve (now The Pantheon) (1756-97) in Paris; in St Isaac's (1840–42) in St Petersburg; and in the dome of the US Capitol (1855–65) in Washington DC.

Other Baroque Architects

In addition to those mentioned above, the best known architects of the Baroque era included:

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723)
Jakob Prandtauer (1660-1726)
Andreas Schluter (1664-1714)
Balthasar Neumann (1687-1753)
See also German Baroque Art (1550-1750) and German Baroque Artists.

Louis le Vau (1612-70)
Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646-1708)
See also: French Baroque Artists

Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-73)
Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)
Francesco Borromini (1599-1667)
Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709).
See also: Italian Baroque Artists.

Alonso Cano (1601-1667)
See also: Spanish Baroque Art.

Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-1771)
See also: Petrine art (1686-1725).


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