Located in the Piazza, St Paul’s was designed by Inigo Jones. The first classical church to be erected in England, building started in 1631 and the church was consecrated in 1638, just before the eruption of the English Civil War and all the political and religious upheavals that it would bring. After a fire in 1795 damaged the church, Thomas Hardwick (later architect to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and clerk of works at Hampton Court) was called in to effect repairs and it reopened in 1798. Today, St Paul’s is probably principally known as the Actors’ Church – it is home to Theatre Chaplaincy UK – where the departed great and good of stage and screen get their final earthly applause, as is evidenced by numerous memorial plaques. But it should be known for its furnishings, too. Although this building is, essentially, a box, they give it a sense of the spaciously numinous. In the narthex is a wreath of flowers by Grinling Gibbons as a memorial to him (he is buried here, along with his wife). Wooden colonnades, originally from the galleries in the church which had been removed, focus our attention on the high altar. But they are not really necessary for this – the copy of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child, at the centre of the reredos, does this much more effectively.
Of theological significance are other interior changes carried-out since Hardwick’s time. At the time of his rebuilding work, the Church of England slumbered in the lethargy of Latitudinarianism. Two religious movements would challenge this, the Evangelical Revival and, from 1833 onwards, the Oxford Movement, which emphasised the Catholic aspects of Anglicanism’s origins. The influence of the second is clear here. There is an icon of Our Lady, encouraging invocation of the saints, and the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Six candles, a traditional indicator of Anglo-Catholic belief and practice and traditionally part of the prescribed ceremonial for a Roman Catholic High Mass, stand behind the freestanding high altar. Their usage is a reminder of the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of a century ago when the baroque work of Martin Travers was their in-house style and, for their devotees, reunion with Rome was a heady possibility.
Nicky Charlish, 2023