I walked into St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in London, and was immediately overwhelmed. Baroque architecture (the style used to build St. Paul’s) might as well be next to the word extravagance in the dictionary. But I’m going to skip past describing all the statues, pillars, domed ceilings, paintings, mosaics, monuments, tombs and chandeliers within the cathedral, because honestly, you can Google it all. What I really want to tell you about is something you can’t experience through Google.

Within the crypt (which was gigantic, much larger than a normal church crypt—it was the entire length of the church above it), there was a small room towards the back end, called the Oculus. The room was about 15 x 15 feet. When I walked in, the room was dark, illuminated only by the floor-to-ceiling screens on three of the walls. People were scattered about, leaning against or sitting by the four pillars arranged in a square in the middle of the room. I took a spot on the floor against a pillar towards the back. My feet and calves throbbed in time with my heartbeat.

There was a film showing on a loop that gave a visual history of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Right outside the room there was a timeline of St. Paul’s and prominent events that occurred at the church. The Oculus took this physical timeline and made it into a visual history with pictures, music, and sounds. As the film started, ancient lute music played in the background and pictures appeared on the screen, with subtitles documenting the year and event.

There have been four different churches on the site, starting in 604 A.D. The Anglo-Saxons built the first church. Historians aren’t entirely sure what happened to this church, but they do know a different church was built in 693 by the Anglo-Saxons again. This one burned down in 962 and was rebuilt again in the same year. The church burned down yet again in 1087 and wasn’t completely rebuilt until 1240.

St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down for the last time in 1666, in the Great Fire that razed almost the entire square mile of the City of London. A picture of flames flashed on the screen, then the sound of fire crackled softly through the speakers, quickly growing in intensity. The projector zoomed in on the flames, the screen grew brighter, and I had to squint from the sudden brightness.

This is just one of the few striking events the Oculus covered. St. Paul’s also survived Hitler’s Blitz during WWII thanks to the courageous men and women who were part of the St. Paul’s Watch. When incendiaries hit the ground, they would run towards the freshly exploded bombs with buckets of water to put out fires before they destroyed the buildings around them.

Shortly after the Blitz picture, the film ended and the screen went black for a few seconds before starting at the beginning again. I stood up and followed the others out into the crypt to continue my tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

–Elizabyth Ladwig