Wren, Christopher

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

Christopher Wren, one of England's greatest architects, redesigned many of London's most beautiful churches after the Great Fire of 1666. His masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral, is a famous London landmark.

Wren was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England, on October 20, 1632. His father and uncle were prominent members of the clergy, but young Wren's interests were mathematics and science. He received degrees from Oxford University and went on to become a professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London and later at Oxford. In 1660 he became a founding member of the Royal Society, a group of noted scientists.

Wren was also a serious but amateur architect. In 1663 he designed his first buildings—Pembroke College Chapel at Cambridge University and the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. From 1665 to 1666 he visited France to further his knowledge of architecture.

In September, 1666, a large part of central London burned to the ground. Wren designed a new town plan with streets radiating from open squares. His plan was not carried out, but he was commissioned to draw new designs for St. Paul's Cathedral and 50 other churches that had been damaged or destroyed in the fire. This work made Wren the most important architect in England. In 1669 he was made Surveyor General of His Majesty's Works, a position that placed him in charge of whatever building the government ordered. In 1673 he was knighted.

Among the most well-known churches designed by Wren are St. Bride, Fleet Street; St. Stephen's, Walbrook; and St. Mary-le-Bow. After several years of planning, his greatest work, St. Paul's Cathedral, was begun in 1675. Building was completed in 1710. The massive dome of the cathedral is supported by a brick cone concealed between the ceiling and the outer structure. The ceiling of the dome is painted with scenes from the life of Saint Paul. Two stories of columns, grouped in pairs, grace the front of the building, and beautiful steeples crown the towers on either side of the main entrance.

Wren also designed important secular (nonreligious) buildings, such as the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich and the Chelsea Hospital in London. Among those he designed for royalty are Kensington and Green palaces and the south and east wings of Hampton Court. At Kensington and Hampton Court, he used mostly brick for the exteriors. In doing so, he proved that impressive buildings could be designed from this humble material.

Sir Christopher Wren died on February 25, 1723, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. There the epitaph, written by his son, reads: "If you seek a monument, look about you."

Marilyn Schaefer
New York City Technical College

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