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.
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 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.
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.
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