Christopher Wren and the Muslim Origin of Gothic Architecture

by The Editorial Team Published on: 11th August 2003

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Christopher Wren's respect for Muslim architecture is displayed in his adoption of numerous Muslim architectural solutions within his designs. In his greatest ever project, the Cathedral of St. Paul, London, the Muslim influence can be easily traced.

bannerChristopher Wren (1632-1723) whose father was the Dean of Windsor and whose uncle, Mathew Wren, was the Bishop of Norwich, graduated from Oxford with an MA in 1653.

Four years later, in 1657, he became Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London. He was also a revered mathematician, an expert in natural science theories and a renowned architect.

In 1661 Christopher Wren, with other colleagues, founded ‘The Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge’ and presided over it between 1680 and 1682. His fame rose from the numerous architectural projects he undertook, over eighty, particularly the cathedral of St. Paul in London, which gained him respect and admiration of architects of all ages.

Wren on the Influence of Muslim architecture on Gothic

Christopher Wren appreciated the beauty of architecture in Ottoman and Moorish mosques, which he researched thoroughly. With his experience and talent he discovered the imprints of Muslim architecture in western architecture, which was referred to as the Gothic. After deep investigation into various structural and decorative elements of this art, Wren became convinced of the Muslim roots of the Gothic, establishing the so called “Saracenic Theory”. He firmly believed that both historical facts and physical characteristics of this style pointed to a Muslim origin. He explains his theory in the following:

“This we now call the Gothic manner of architecture (so the Italians called what was not after the Roman style), though the Goths were rather destroyers than builders: I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen style; for those people (the Goths) wanted neither arts nor learning; and after we in the West had lost both, we borrowed again from them, out of their Arabic books, what they with great diligence had translated from the Greeks. They were zealots in their religion and wherever they conquered (which was with amazing rapidity) erected mosques and caravanserais in haste, which obliged them to fall into another way of building; for they built their mosques round, disliking the Christian form of a cross. The old quarries, whence the ancients took their large blocks of marble for whole columns and architraves, were neglected; and they thought both impertinent. Their carriage was by camels; therefore their buildings were fitted for small stones, and columns of their own fancy, consisting of many pieces; and their arches pointed without jey-stones, which they thought too heavy. The reasons were the same in our northern climates, abounding in freestone, but wanting marble” (Wren, Parentalia, p.297)

He adds further:

“Modern Gothic, as it is called, is deduced from a different quarter; it is distinguished by the lightness of its work, by the excessive boldness of its elevations, and of its sections; by the delicacy, profusion, and extravagant fancy of its ornaments. The pillars of this kind are as slender as those of the ancient Gothic are massive: such productions, so airy, cannot admit the heavy Goths for their author; how can be attributed to them a style of architecture, which was only introduced in the tenth century of our era? several years after the destruction of all those kingdoms which the Goths had raised upon the ruins of the Roman empire, and a time when the very name of Goth was entirely forgotten: from all the marks of the new architecture it can only be attributed to the Moors; or what is the same thing, to the Arabian or Saracens; who have expressed in their architecture the same taste as in their poetry; both the one and the other falsely delicate, crowded with superfluous ornaments, and often very unnatural; the imagination is highly worked up in both; but it is an extravagant imagination; and it has rendered the edifices of the Arabians (we may include the other Orientals) as extraordinary as their thoughts. If any one doubts of this assertion, let us appeal to any one who has seen the mosques and palaces of Fez, or some of the cathedrals in Spain, built by the Moors: one model of this sort is the church of Burgos; and even in this island there are not wanting several examples of the same: such buildings have been vulgarly called Modern Gothic, but their true appellation is Arabic, Saracenic, or Moresque. This manner was introduced into Europe through Spain; learning flourished among the Arabian all the time that their dominion was in full power; they studied philosophy, mathematics, physics, and poetry. The love of learning was at once excited, in all places that were not at too great distance from Spain these authors were read, and such of the Greek authors as they had translated into Arabic, were from thence turned into Latin. The physics and philosophy of the Arabians spread themselves in Europe, and with these their architecture: many churches were built after the Saracenic mode; and others with a mixture of heavy and light proportions: the alteration that the difference of the climate might require was little, if at all, considered. In most southern parts of Europe and in Africa, the windows (before the use of glass) made with narrow apertures, and placed very high in the walls of the building, occasioned a shade and darkness within side, and were all contrived to guard against the fierce rays of the sun, yet were ill suited to those latitudes, where that glorious luminary shades its feebler influences, and is rarely seen but through a watery cloud” (see Grose, 1808).

Wren’s respect for Muslim architecture is demonstrated in his adoption of numerous Muslim architectural solutions within his designs. In his greatest ever project, the Cathedral of St. Paul, the Muslim influence can be easily traced in the structure of the domes in the aisles (figure 1) as well as the use of the combination of dome and tower (figure 2) (Danby, 1995, p.153).

Here the dome was constructed in Islamic fashion using the corner squinches (please refer to the glossary of architectural terms). The idea of early European churches employing the squinch is not correct. It was the Muslims who introduced this technique to Europe.

Figure 1: Domes of the Aisles in St. Paul’s Cathedral were
constructed in Islamic fashion using the corner squinches. (Source).

Figure 2: St. Paul’s Cathedral showing the effectiveness of using the contrast between dome and minaret, used widely in Muslim religious architecture. (Source).

The other influence is traced in the use of the combination of dome and tower (figure 2) (Danby, 1995, p.153). This structural device was also adopted by other European architects, especially the Italians in late renaissance companili of Italy. In the minaret of St. Mary le Bow, London (1671-1683), the influence of the Muslim minaret on Christopher Wren is clearly visible as he adopted it with little modification (figure 3).

Figure 3: The tower of St. Mary le Bow imitates the Muslim
minaret, a square surmounted by four stories of 235 feet high.

Wren died in 1723 at the age of 91, leaving his 300 years old architectural legacy to continue to be enjoyed while his positive views on the influence of Muslim architecture remain a rare example of early impartiality by Western scholars.


Wren, Christopher, the Junior (1675-1747), ‘Parentalia: or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens’, viz. of Mathew Bishop, printed for T. Osborn; and R. Dodsley, London, 1750.
Danby, Miles (1995), ‘Moorish style’, Phaidon, London.
James Elmes (1823) `Christopher Wren’, London Chapman & Hall.1st edition, 1852.
Grose, F. (1731-1791) ed. 1808 `Essays on Gothic architecture ‘ by the Rev. T. Warton et al., 3rd ed. J. Taylor, at the Architectural Library, London.

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