A Loveable Thing: St. Paul's Cathedral and National Identity, 1900 to 1940

Stewart, Abigail, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Casteen, John, Department of English, University of Virginia
Li, Shiqiao, Department of Architecture, University of Virginia
Reilly, Lisa, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

St. Paul’s Cathedral is a symbol of Britain, both as an outward representation of Empire and an inward depiction of England as an individual nation. The ambiguous nature of expressing both imperial and national ideas is at the heart of defining British identity in the first half of the 20th century. Because of this dichotomy, St. Paul’s is not a stable image. By understanding the Cathedral as a pliable symbol, its associations can be molded to serve its audience. In terms of nation, the Cathedral acts as a staunch English icon. It is a recognizable symbol of state and has been since its reconstruction in 1675. St. Paul’s embodies survival and longevity after the Great Fire of London in 1666, a phoenix rising from the ashes. As Britain expanded and the Empire grew, the image has been reformulated. Having taken on an imperial role, it became the focal point for the stability and endurance of the Empire. Figures like St. Paul’s Cathedral act as flexible symbols with the ability to depict values of empire and state. St. Paul’s significance lies in its elasticity and its ability to survive, serving both nation and empire as it is defined through the circumstances of its time.

Two moments of St. Paul’s modern history matter in fundamental ways. Both situations prompted reflection on the Cathedral’s importance. In 1924, St. Paul’s was condemned as a dangerous building due to the instability of the structure. This encouraged an examination of the Cathedral’s legacy and importance. The second risk comes from external forces. The Blitz of 1940 posed an immense danger to St. Paul’s, which evoked the fear of losing the building. This anxiety was deeply rooted in the panic of surrendering the definition of the British self to an outside force. These challenges are part of England’s national story and serve as defining points as the country struggled to find identity in a changing world.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
empire, Christopher Wren, identity, World War II, architectural history, St. Paul's Cathedral, nation, London
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