The desire to praise God

The desire to praise God

Reviews: Building St Paul’s by James Campbell and Michelangelo, God’s Architect by William Wallace

St Peter’s and St Paul’s are two of the world’s best-known churches, symbols, respectively, of Catholicism and Anglicanism. The books Michelangelo, God’s Architect and Building St Paul’s cover the geniuses behind them, Michelangelo and Christopher Wren, and the monumental processes of their construction, where, as historian James Campbell says, the grand business of art joined the practical considerations of manipulating huge quantities of mundane materials such as stone and wood.

Campbell’s is a small book but is packed with details of demolition, stone masonry, paper making, scaffolding, cranes, drawing, city politics and the difficult issue of raising funds, and historians such as Campbell are helped by the unusual proliferation of still-existing documentation for the cathedral’s rebuilding.

Wren was a polymath – not only an architect, but also an astronomer and mathematician, with an astonishing range of innovations in the fields of medicine, geometry, printing and music to his name. He designed what was to be the dome of the old cathedral, but the Great Fire intervened, and despite the devastation and loss of life, this was something of an architectural blessing, as the old St Paul’s was a hotchpotch of Classical tacked onto Gothic added to Romanesque. Wren actually drew up plans for the rebuilding of the whole city, but was in the end restricted to St Paul’s, a big enough job, one would think.

As with St Peter’s in Rome, there were a number of earlier, competing designs, and, as with St Peter’s, major changes would be made along the way. It was normal, says William Wallace, for designs of churches to change during construction with the whims of fashion (and church) and engineering problems. Unlike at St Peter’s, Wren was in charge almost the whole time, something rare, says Campbell, for such a big and long-winded job.

Michelangelo didn’t have the luxury of Wren’s clean slate. Wallace’s book focuses on the later stages of St Peter’s construction, when Michelangelo took over – in his eighties, mind you – and boldly modified the frankly ponderous models of his predecessor. It is a myth, Wallace writes, that Michelangelo’s best work was done in his youth – David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The reworking of previous architect’s designs and the design of the dome were Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece and greatest responsibility.

Then again, Wallace says that in his old age Michelangelo was frustrated at sculptural failures and commissions from popes – frescoes, urban planning projects – that distracted from the massive St Peter’s undertaking, as well as, more personally, the impediments of an ageing body, the loss of old friends and the prevention of an easy retirement in his hometown of Florence. Wallace is empathetic and understanding of Michelangelo’s lot and his spiritual yearnings.

As with St Paul’s, the dome was Michelangelo’s greatest challenge. In both buildings, piers supporting the domes were inadequate and began to shift already during the years of construction. (London’s notoriously dodgy soil didn’t help with St Paul’s.) In St Peter’s, Michelangelo reinforced and rebuilt the supports, allowing the vast, crowning structure (which includes some of Michelangelo’s architectural innovations, such as paired pillars). Wren had to be more engineeringly creative, in order to lighten the load, managing a dome that gives the impression of greater solidity when the outer dome is a simple wooden structure.

Both historians emphasise the continuities of building practices – and problems – with today. Architects then, as today, had to wrestle with complex engineering, sourcing materials, scheduling, management of large teams and budgets and finding solutions on the run. But when we look at the technology available 400 and 500 years ago, the achievements of Wren and Michelangelo, and their underlings, can only seem more astonishing, testaments to the desire to praise God. Indeed, in both, the internal spaces are celebrations of harmony and magnificence, irresistibly drawing the eyes heavenward. But whether God would’ve approved of the expense of such astonishing creations is another matter entirely.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at


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