Wren, ‘Beautification’, and the Blitz: The Dome of St. Mary Abchurch

Like many churches, St. Mary Abchurch perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666. It would not be rebuilt by Christopher Wren until almost 15 years later with construction taking place from 1681-1686. A real treasure chest of woodwork, and considered to be one of the only ‘unspoiled’ examples of Wren’s work left in the City, Mary Abchurch should certainly be on your list to pop into if you have the chance.

Mary Abchurch

A rare glance at St. Mary Abchurch (usually hidden by buildings)

At first glance from the outside, the church is a regular, red-brick, square-shaped building. Inside, however, is a dome hidden from external view with paintings from the early 18th century. The dome is 40 feet in diameter, and built with no external thrusts or supports with its weight distributed between the walls of the church. Appearances are deceiving, and it’s important to note the dome itself is made of plaster and a wooden frame which is in turn covered by a roof. The dome is illuminated by four circular windows which causes the church to seem much larger than it really is, a design choice that hearkens back to Wren’s love of using open spaces and natural light in his buildings.

The dome was not painted until 1708 when a request for ‘beautification’ was made. The paintings first show up in records in 1714, and are widely assumed to have been part of this effort. Sources argue over if they were done by Sir James Thornhill or William Snow – though Snow (a parishioner) is often credited with the work as there is documentary evidence of him being paid by the church, while no such evidence exists for Thornhill.

The Dome

Once again, my camera stinks, but with the windows this is a tough thing to photograph on a good day!

The oil paintings inside the dome itself depict worship in heaven, with the name of God in Hebrew in gold at the center. Angels and cherubs singing and playing musical instruments feature in the more central part of the dome. While at first glance it seems that there are two levels to the structure, a second glance shows the dome is cleverly painted using a forced perspective technique to give the illusion of layers. The eight stone-like figures below are regularly assumed to represent Christian virtues, though there is no documentary evidence with respect to their identities.

Virtues

Statue-esque paintings of (possibly) the virtues

The dome was almost completely lost in 1940 during the Blitz when a bomb went off nearby and much of the plaster was damaged. If you visit the church today, a photograph of the dome pre-restoration sits near the font showing the extent of the damage. The plaster that had not been completely destroyed had to be taken down, cleaned and then put back in its original place. After this new plaster had to be added and painted to match the rest of the dome. It’s estimated that at least 75% of the current dome is original thanks to the meticulously done restoration work, with only a few cherubs and portions of angels needing to be replaced completely.

If you do visit, be sure to note some of the other treasures in the church as well: carvings by Grinling Gibbons, a case of artifacts from the church, and the stained glass window dedicated to the Fruiterers.

More Info:
Wren’s City of London Churches – John Christopher
Wren’s Domes – Jacques Heyman in Proceedings of the First Conference of the Construction History Society (2014).
The Painted Dome of St. Mary Abchurch – Eric Smith in Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Vol. 19

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St. Albans Abbey: The one that started it all…

Once upon a time, when I was solely a stained glass nerd. One day, I took a break from the hustle and bustle of London and spent an afternoon strolling around St. Albans Abbey. At the time I was just starting out on my ‘SEE ALL THE CHURCHES’ adventure. My dissertation was on a London City Church, and most of the churches I had been doing research in were all in Greater London – many of those were of Victorian construction or ‘renovation’.

The Abbey was fairly quiet, it was a sunny, warm day in June so all the sensible people were outside enjoying the weather. I was running around like I usually was in a church, picking out which windows I was going to take the time to photograph (sunny days are awful for stained glass photography), looking at tombs and monuments, and falling in love with wall paintings – something that you don’t really find in London churches. My travelling and church visiting buddy stopped over to look at some books to buy and I spotted a leaflet entitled: A Short Graffiti Tour of Saint Albans Abbey. I had no idea what they were talking about so I picked it up and started to read.

Skeleton 2

One of the first ever pictures I took of graffiti….and it’s total crap (of course)

WHAT. Tiny scratches on walls that are skeletons and hares and hands and names?!?!?! How had I been missing out on this! Despite being halfway through seeing the Abbey I dragged my counterpart back to the proverbial start so we could go through this pamphlet and find all the graffiti we could. Though a few areas were cordoned off, I found most of it and started trying to figure out how to take photos of the inscriptions with THE crappiest camera for low-light the world has probably ever seen. I still love the image I somehow got my camera to take of the famous hare as well as the two skeletons. Take a moment to feel bad for my friend here….I literally refused to move on to the next spot in the pamphlet until I had successfully found the graffiti that were listed….meaning there were times he was standing there doing nothing for quite some time.

Upon leaving I thought of the dozens of churches I had been to already. Did THEY have graffiti? If they did why didn’t they tell anyone? This was such a personal and interesting thing to study what on earth had I been missing out on?! I suppose I got bit by the graffiti ‘bug’ that day, because every building we visited afterwards I was climbing in the cloisters or crawling around the quire looking for previously ignored symbols. Several times I had people come up to me and ask me what on earth I was doing staring at the walls – I’d cheerfully show them and they’d join in for a short time before reverting to ‘normal person’ status. What was even funnier was going through my photos from churches before I knew graffiti was a ‘thing’ and seeing photos I took of graffiti without even realising it was there or what it was! Graffiti became my main field of study and my passion soon after that trip.

These days I look at images people send me and try to answer their questions, or put some of the cool things I’ve found up on a screen in front of a class full of undergraduate students, or I’m crawling around on the floor investigating a unique looking chisel mark in some long forgotten parish church. But I absolutely love it and wouldn’t trade it for anything – so thank you St. Albans – you helped make me…..me.