As featured in the Harry Potter film The Prisoner of Azkaban, the last the 528 steps of St. Paul's Cathedral's famous dome designed by Sir Christopher Wren is known as “the geometric staircase.” Climbing to the top is not for the fainthearted, but you will be rewarded with breath-taking views of London.
St. Paul’s Cathedral also has many artworks on display, including some thought-provoking modern art. One of my favourites is “The Light of the World,” a 19th century religious painting by Holman Hunt. Described as “a Christian sermon in a frame,” it was once known to be “the most famous painting in the English-speaking world.”
The artist, Holman Hunt, was one of the founding members of the group of artists who called themselves the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” Despising the art of their own time, the brotherhood wanted to return to the style of art from the time before Rafael, and to paint serious subjects straight from nature.
The painting was commissioned by Charles Booth, a wealthy city banker who became a Christian preacher after experiencing a vision. Booth took the painting around the world on his tour to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand where he preached to millions of people. After travelling for four years, he brought the picture back to England in 1908 and donated it to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The artist Holman Hunt, by then very old and almost blind, was present at the painting’s installation ceremony at the cathedral, and reportedly wept with joy. He was later buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s, close to the tomb of the cathedral’s architect, Sir Christopher Wren.
There is a lot of symbolism in the painting, so it’s worth taking some time to observe it in detail. Based on a verse from the New Testament, the artist has added to the bottom of the painting the quote: “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and opens the door, I will come to him and sup with him and he with me.” In the painting, the door, lacking any visible handle, represents the human soul which can only be opened from the inside. The door is also depicted overgrown with plants, and you can find wilted shrubs and rotten fruit on the ground: sadly, the door hasn’t been opened for a long time. Additionally, the lit candle represents Christ, who once said: “I will bring light into your life once the door opens.”
50 years before Hunt painted “The Light of the World,” he made a similar painting for Keble College, Oxford, which still hangs there today. The college charged people to see the painting, which Hunt strongly disapproved of, believing that religious artwork should be accessible for all those who embraced it.
Tragically, the original medieval cathedral burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. This statue of John Donne is the only statue to survive the inferno. It fell through the floor and was covered in rubble but remained intact. You can still see the scorch marks at its foot today.
Who was John Donne? A poet, scholar and member of parliament for 13 years, John Donne was also the dean of St. Paul’s for ten years between 1621 and 1631. A literary man known for his impressive sermons, thousands would flock to the cathedral to hear him speak, for it was never tedious. His style was characterised by abrupt openings, paradoxes, and even ironies. He also secretly wrote erotic poems which only circled amongst closed circles of friends.
Towards the end of his life, his preaching became somewhat more sombre and was often about death and the miseries of life on earth. He gave people a positive outlook on death though; “those who die are sent to Heaven to live eternally,” was his central message. This may be why he chose for his statue to depict him wearing a death shroud and with eyes closed.
Another rare treasure of St. Paul’s Cathedral: the first edition of William Tyndale’s New Testament bible. This copy of the first ever bible printed in English is one of just three copies surviving in the world today. It’s the greatest treasure of St Paul's library collection.
According to Tyndale, the Church authorities had previously banned translations of the Bible in order "to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine...and to exalt their own honour...above God himself."
Inspired to push ahead with the forbidden translations and get the Bible into the hands of the people, Tyndale travelled to Germany - the centre of the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther - to start printing. Betrayed, he was forced to move on to Worms and from there many copies were smuggled into England.