St. Paul’s Cathedral in London finishes 15-year restoration

St. Paul's Cathedral, LondonAfter fifteen years and £40 million ($65 million), a massive restoration of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is finally finished.

The timing is perfect because it coincides with the 300th anniversary of the cathedral’s original completion.

Much of the restoration was actually a cleaning to get years of accumulated soot and grime off the structure. This dirt is acidic and can damage the fine white stone, as has happened at many historical buildings. Architectural details and interior decoration were repaired and restored to their original luster.

Located at the end of the Millennium Bridge on the north bank of the Thames, St. Paul’s is one of London’s greatest landmarks. A church has stood here since 604 AD, a time when much of England was still pagan, and this spot has remained spiritually important for Londoners ever since. A later version of the church burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666. Christopher Wren, the leading English architect of his day, was commissioned to rebuild it and made it his masterpiece.

A complete visit takes at least two hours, preferably three. One highlight is the Golden Gallery atop the dome, reached by climbing 530 steps. I think the view from here is the best in London. While the London Eye is taller, St. Paul’s is in the middle of the historic heart of London and so the view from here is more interesting.

The crypt holds the remains of many famous people such as William Blake, John Constable, and of course Christopher Wren. In his later years he used to sit in St. Paul’s and admire his masterpiece. His grave is marked by a simple plaque that reads in Latin, “Beneath lies buried the founder of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived more than 90 years, not for himself but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you,”

To celebrate the remodel, St. Paul’s is hosting a photo competition. Take a shot of the exterior of the shiny new/old building and you could see your work displayed in one of London’s most visited buildings.

[Image courtesy user Diliff via Wikimedia Commons]

Skyscraper as theme park: Architect re-imagines thrill rides on a vertical scale

Can you imagine a theme park in the middle of Manhattan? Finding the capital to acquire the land and raise the buildings on it to create the necessary open space would be nearly impossible.

But what if that theme park could be built vertically, as a theme park skyscraper?

Skyscraper theme parkThat’s the idea behind architect Ju-Hyun Kim’s vertical theme park prototypes. Kim says in order to be eco-friendly and save the world from more sprawl, the theme parks of tomorrow need to be built in the middle of cities:

Instead of sprawling parks with giant footprints, stack the park into a skyscraper. The altitude will only add to the speed and excitement of rides, and the view of the surrounding dense urban environment will be incredible. There’ll be so much more to see from the top of the carousel and roller coaster on the perimeter. Best of all, it will be easily reached by public transportation, and the environmental impact will be minimal. Now is the time to build the joyful destination for families’ perfect day out at the center of cities.

Kim’s vertical theme park would be broken into five sections:

  • Vertigo World, which would include a carousel and observation deck at the top of the theme park skyscraper
  • Fast Land, including a flume ride and a rollercoaster
  • 360 World, with a Ferris Wheel and sky promenade
  • Abyss City, a bungee jumping platform
  • Elsewhere Universe, a geodesic dome with a gravity-free zone

Though very different from Kim’s vision, theme-park pioneer Walt Disney also considered building a vertical theme park in a city’s downtown. Fifty years ago, Disney was planning a River Front Square on the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis. The five-story indoor attraction’s plans are said to have included a walk-through pirate ship, audio-animatronic exhibits and a haunted house.

But the St. Louis plans for a metropolitan Disney theme park were scrapped, and the second Disney theme park — the Magic Kingdom — was built outdoors, horizontally, on part of a sprawling 40-square-mile swampy area now known as Walt Disney World.

You can see all the prototypes from Kim’s vertical theme park proposal at ArchDaily.

The death of paganism: how the Roman Empire converted to Christianity


In the year 300 AD, Christianity was a minority religion in the Roman Empire, practiced by perhaps ten percent of the population. In good years it was discriminated against; in bad years it was persecuted. By 400 AD, a century later, it had become the official religion practiced by pretty much everyone. Evidence of this remarkable transformation can still be seen in Rome’s monuments.

Teachers in Sunday schools like to tell a story about how it happened.

In the year 312 there ruled a Roman Emperor named Maxentius who had taken power illegally. He hated Christians and persecuted them. The proper heir to the throne, Constantine, marched on Rome to save the Empire. Before the two forces met in battle, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky and the words “Conquer under this”. Constantine and his army converted to Christianity and painted the cross on their shields. The next day they defeated the pagans and brought Christianity to Rome.

This story is almost entirely wrong, yet it has resonated down the centuries through books, paintings, and films to become part of the Christian legend.

The truth is more complex. Maxentius and Constantine were both sons of emperors and thus equally legitimate. Maxentius did not persecute Christians, and the story of Constantine seeing a cross in the sky doesn’t appear in the texts until years after the battle. Constantine did defeat Maxentius and marched into Rome in triumph, bearing his rival’s severed head as a trophy. After the usual celebrations and gladiator spectacles, he built the Arch of Constantine, which has no Christian symbolism but does depict sacrifices to four pagan gods. In later years he built a number of grandiose churches, including the original St. Peter’s, but didn’t get baptized until his deathbed. Paganism remained legal throughout his reign.

Constantine gave one great boon to the Christians–he legalized their religion. From then on it rapidly gained more followers and began edging out the pagan cults. Soon it was the pagans being persecuted. Rioting monks trashed temples and killed pagan philosophers like Hypatia. In 382 the Altar of Victory was removed from its centuries-old home in the Senate. In 391 paganism was outlawed and temples shut all over the Empire. The old cults hung on for a few generations in rural areas, but Christianity was now the dominant power.

Traces of this incredible transformation are visible in Rome. At the Basilica di San Clemente a 12th century church is built atop a much earlier church. This earlier building was the home of a Roman noble, a secret Christian who invited fellow Christians into his home to worship, a common practice in the days when Christianity was illegal. Underneath his home lies a subterranean temple to the pagan god Mithras.

Entering the medieval church you see the usual grandiose paintings and sculptures. The real interest comes when you descend the stairs into the dank, dark cellar. There you can see the original church much as it was. Descend further and you get back to the days of the pagan Roman Empire. Three rooms survive. One may have been a mint. Another, with a few paintings surviving, was a training room for acolytes in the Mithraic faith. The third is the temple, or mithraeum, for Mithras himself.

%Gallery-102749%Mithras was Christianity’s main rival. As a mystery religion with its deepest teachings revealed only to the initiated, we don’t know much about its inner workings. What we do know shows many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, such as the belief that Mithras was born on December 25 to a virgin, and died and was resurrected in order to save mankind. The similarities were so numerous that early Christian writers said that the older religion was invented by the Devil as a cheap imitation of Christianity before Jesus was even born!

The mithraeum is a long, rectangular room with benches to either side. Members would sit on these benches and share a communal meal that included bread and wine. At the end of the room stood a plaque showing Mithras in a little-understood ritual of killing a bull. Mithraism was popular, but didn’t have the widespread appeal of Christianity. First off, only men were allowed into the cult. Also, most of the teachings were secret, and while that had a certain mystique, it also turned off many who didn’t want to go through a long period of study and initiation. Despite this more than a dozen mithraea survive in Rome and there were probably hundreds during its heyday.

The transition from pagan to Christian isn’t always as obvious as in San Clemente. Sometimes you can see it in the art, such as the image above, a 4th century mosaic from Santa Pudenziana. Here Christ sits enthroned in a pose identical to many statues of the pagan god Jupiter. Saints Peter and Paul sit to either side dressed as Roman senators. The early Christians saw nothing wrong with this. They wanted to win the hearts and minds of the people, and a bit of reworked pagan symbolism was a good way to do that.

At times the Christians reused old buildings or parts of old buildings. San Maria Maggiore, a third century basilica, was originally a secular building before being converted into a house of worship. This is one of the most stunning churches in Rome, with fifth-century mosaics showing Biblical scenes and a ceiling gilded during the Renaissance with the first gold brought back from the New World. So many Roman sites are only foundations with perhaps a few columns standing, but here you can actually stand inside a Roman building.

Christianity would have never caught on so quickly if it didn’t have the Empire’s infrastructure to spread its message. These were the days when trying to cross a border could easily get you killed, and the Empire provided a large, secure area in which to move about. The Catholic Church understood their debt to Rome and wanted to take on its aura of glory and power. Rome went became the capital of the new faith and its art and architecture was incorporated into churches worldwide. The Church was still trying take on a bit of the old Roman magic as late as the 17th century, when the Pope ordered the giant bronze doors from the old Roman Senate installed in the entrance to St. John Lateran.

The name Roman Catholic Church is no accident.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: exploring Rome’s sinister side.

Coming up next: Saints’ relics in Rome!

The tombs of Rome–where art meets death


If you’re going to your eternal rest in the Eternal City, you should go in style.

Sure, you can’t take it with you, but you can show off what you had, and with all the competition in this place you have to do something special to make an impression. Rome is filled with grandiose monuments to the dead. First there are the giant tombs and temples of the Roman emperors. They were worshiped as gods, so they always got a nice sendoff. The most famous is the mausoleum of Hadrian, a giant circular building by the River Tiber. It was so splendid that the Popes preserved it and expanded it with additional stories and fortifications before renaming it the Castel Sant’Angelo. Just a cannon shot away from Vatican City, it proved a convenient bolthole for the pontiff back in the days when he ran the Papal States, an independent nation in central Italy, and warred with his neighbors. It saved Pope Clement VII when Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. Neither Rome nor the Vatican had great defenses, but the Castel Sant’Angelo proved too much for the invaders. It’s not often a mausoleum saves lives! While it’s not one of the ten toughest castles in the world, it is an impressive tomb/fortification all the same.

Then you have the early Christians with their miles of catacombs, and the churches filled with saint’s relics. More on those in two later installments in this series. There are so many tombs and monuments both pagan and Christian that sometimes it seems Rome is dedicated to death. The city even has a Purgatory Museum.

The Renaissance was a golden age of church building. Italy, while still divided into several different nations, was a rich place. Seagoing merchants dominated the lucrative trade in the Mediterranean, and the Pope’s coffers were full from tithes and donations. Much of this money went to sponsor the great architects and artists of the age. These talented men built lavish churches and adorned them with giant paintings. The rich and powerful vied for one another to be buried in the most prestigious churches, and they commissioned tombs to match the glory of the buildings.

Every Renaissance church in Rome is filled with these masterpieces of funerary art. Marble bishops lie in state flanked by angels. The walls are adorned with paintings of noblemen surrounded by reminders of life’s brevity–skulls on wings, hourglasses, and the grim Reaper with his scythe. Even the floors are covered in tombs. Most are smooth flagstones, but on some floor tombs bishops and cardinals had their likenesses carved in bas-relief. While these are not the most impressive of the graves, they’re perhaps the most poignant. Centuries of visitors have walked over them until their features have blurred beyond recognition, and their epitaphs have been lost. These powerful clergymen, respected and feared in their time, have all but melted away.

This is the second in a series about my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. Tune in tomorrow as we visit Italy’s fallen heroes in the Military Museums of Rome!

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Five stunning stone circles (besides Stonehenge)


Every year thousands of tourists flock to Stonehenge, the iconic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, England. While so much attention is focused on this site, especially with the recent discovery of another monument near Stonehenge, people often forget there’s more than a thousand stone circles in the British Isles and Continental Europe. Built during the Neolithic starting about 5,000 years ago, these sites are beautiful and have gathered a lot of strange folklore over the centuries, like the mistaken belief that they were built by Druids or giants. Here are five of the best.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles, Scotland
The windswept Orkney Isles north of Scotland are covered in prehistoric remains. The Ring of Brodgar, seen above in this photo courtesy of Beth Loft, is built of thin, tall stones on a narrow isthmus between two lochs. Its architects obviously had an eye for dramatic setting. It dates to between 2500 and 2000 BC, a boom time for monumental building in the Orkneys. It’s the northernmost stone circle in the British Isles and also the third largest at 104 meters (341 ft) in diameter. Like many major circles it’s part of a network of sites, with tombs and single standing stones scattered in the area around it. Legend has it that the Vikings were so impressed with the Ring of Brodgar when they arrived in the ninth century AD that they worshiped their gods here. Some Viking Runes carved into the stones may support this theory.

Avebury, England
Bigger than Stonehenge, the site of Avebury just 17 miles north of Stonehenge consists of a massive stone circle 331.6 meters (1,088 ft) in diameter with two avenues of stones leading to a pair of smaller stone circles. Construction began around 2900 BC, roughly the same time as its neighbor. Other monuments, such as the mysterious artificial mound of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long barrow, an ancient tomb, are an easy walk away. During the Middle Ages the locals got religion and decided this pagan monument needed to go. They knocked over several stones until one fell over and crushed one of the vandals. Everyone thought this was just a legend until modern archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath with some 14th century coins in his pocket!

%Gallery-98480%Rollright Stones, England
This stone circle makes a fun day hike from Oxford. Most stone circles are pretty small. This one is only 33 meters (108 feet) in diameter but has some interesting details. One stone has a hole through which you can see a tall monolith called the King Stone in a nearby field. A nearby dolmen (a small roofed tomb of stone) is called the Whispering Knights. Legend says the circle and these two outlying monuments are a king and his knights who were turned to stone by a witch. Actually the circle and monolith were built by prehistoric people between 2500 to 2000 BC. The Whispering Knights date to about 3500 BC. In prehistoric times, the presence of one monument encouraged people to build more.

Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland
Drombeg Stone Circle in County Cork is a tight little collection of stones 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. It’s of a type known as a recumbent stone circle because the largest stone lies on its side flanked by two smaller ones. This was deliberate; the stone didn’t fall down. What this means is anyone’s guess, although the local claim that it’s a “Druid’s Altar” is fanciful because the circle dates to the Bronze Age, about 2000 BC, and the druids were priests of the Celts, who didn’t appear on the scene until around 300 BC. Radiocarbon dating on a burial found in the center of the circle yielded a date between 150 BC and 130 AD. Just like at the Ring of Brodgar, later people were attracted to the site. While Drombeg didn’t start out as a Druid’s altar, maybe it ended up as one!

The Stone Circles of Senegambia, Senegal and The Gambia
Stone circles in Africa? Yep, these monuments aren’t as grandiose as the ones in Europe but they’re equally mysterious. There are about a thousand of them in a region of central Senegal and Gambia, meaning there’s about as many stone circles here as in all of Europe. The stones are as tall as 2.5 meters (8 ft.), although some are only a foot or so high. They mark burials dating from the 3rd century BC to the 16th century AD. There’s a large concentration of them at Wassu, Gambia. Locals put small stones on top of them as a sign of respect. Not much is known about these stone circles but they are beginning to attract attention from the archaeological community. A certain Gadling blogger may be visiting them next year, so stay tuned.