A Tale of Two Cities’ Cathedrals
London’s famous 1666 fire destroyed most of the city, including old St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The fires that burned brightly at Notre-Dame de Paris were matched by the vivid resolve of French politicians and civic leaders that from the ashes this great cathedral will rise once more.
Across the channel in London, one cannot help but be reminded of another fire and another cathedral that burned equally disastrously. In 1666 what was to become known as the Great Fire of London began shortly after midnight on Sept. 2 in a bakery on Pudding Lane near London Bridge. For the next four days a fire ripped through the heart of London until much of London’s medieval past was no more. When the fire subsided it had destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, and most of the buildings belonging to the City of London authorities. Approximately 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants were left homeless by the fire.
Newgate Prison, the infamous jail where so many Catholics were held prior to their martyrdom, was also destroyed in the flames that engulfed the city. So, too, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the mother church of London and the seat of the Bishop of London, was severely damaged in the fire. For a time afterward, services were conducted in its ruins. By the spring 1667 parts of the structure of St. Paul’s that had survived the fire were collapsing and so it was decided to begin rebuilding this once great landmark.
It was to prove a huge undertaking, involving much money and manpower. Years of demolition work began, during which more workmen died than those who had perished in the Great Fire. After workmen refused to climb the great tower to dismantle it, the chief architect, Sir Christopher Wren, deployed a then novel technique — namely, explosives. The blast did bring down the tower but also caused locals to experience vibrations akin to an earthquake. Subsequent further attempts to speed the demolition using explosives resulted in the near deaths of those living nearby as debris and masonry flew through the air. Following complaints and pleas, Wren decided wisely to use a battering ram instead in the remaining demolition work.
The old St. Paul’s Cathedral had a huge spire; the new St. Paul’s was to have a great dome. Wren said that he had based his new design on the former Hagia Sophia church, by then a mosque, in Constantinople. As well as an architect, Wren was also an astronomer. As a reminder, therefore, of the days it takes for the earth to circle the sun, the height of the dome was set at 365 feet. To this day the size of the outer dome of St. Paul’s is second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The first stone of the restored St. Paul’s was laid in June 1675. In the restoration that was to follow, more than 560 tons of chalk, 500 tons of rubble, 50,000 tons of Portland stone, 25,000 tons of other types of stone and 11,000 tons of ragstone were used in the construction, as well as large quantities of marble, timber, sand, copper, lead and iron. More than 70 huge limestone blocks were incorporated into the foundations. The construction of the new St. Paul’s Cathedral took over 33 years to complete, during which five monarchs came and went.
Wren continued to be a frequent visitor to St. Paul’s until his death at the age of 91 in 1723. He is buried in the crypt. The plaque that marks his grave is in Latin and simply states: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
While Wren was working on the building site of St. Paul’s in the early 1670s, he asked a workman to fetch a flat stone that might be used as a marker for the masons. He was handed a fragment of a gravestone inscribed with the single word in large capitals. The word: RESURGAM (I will rise again) – a text from the Gospel of St. Matthew (27:63). Subsequently, Wren decided to place a large phoenix above the south transept hovering over the word, symbolizing the city of London rising from the ashes of the Great Fire.
Today, many have remarked on the golden altar cross of Notre-Dame which is not only still standing after the recent fire but shining ever more brightly than before. As we contemplate the Cross of Christ in these days of the Sacred Triduum, we are reminded that the Holy Cross comes before the Resurrection, but that resurrection will come.
May Notre-Dame rise again.