Old St Paul’s Cathedral was certainly the largest and most famous casualty of the Great Fire of London of 1666. And its passing – and rebirth – is recorded on several memorials, one of which can be found on the building itself.
Set on the pediment which, carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber, sits above south portico off Cannon Street, the memorial depicts a phoenix rising from clouds of smoke (ashes), a symbol of Sir Christopher Wren’s new cathedral which rose on the site of the old Cathedral in the wake of the fire. Below the phoenix is the Latin word, ‘Resurgam’, meaning “I Shall Rise Again”.
The story goes that Wren had this carved after, having called for a stone to mark the exact position over which St Paul’s mighty dome would rise, the architect was shown a fragment of one of the church’s tombstones which had been inscribed with the word.
The foundation stone for the new cathedral, largely built of Portland stone, was laid without any fanfare on 21st June, 1675, and it only took some 35 years before it was largely completed. Some of the stonework from the old cathedral was used in the construction of the new.
We should note that the old cathedral was in a state of some disrepair when the fire swept through it – the spire had collapsed in 1561 and despite the addition of a new portico by Inigo Jones, it was generally in poor condition.
Stonework from the Old St Paul’s – everything from a Viking grave marker to 16th century effigies – are now stored in the Triforium, rarely open to the public (tours of the Triforium are being run as part of the programme of events being held at the cathedral to mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire – see www.stpauls.co.uk/fire for more).
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