The Sheldonian Theatre – Ancient and Modern

I will continue to blog about the things that I encounter as I teach my Renaissance Special Subject. Today, however, I have found something much closer to my research interest – the history of science in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Today’s thing is very easy to find, and it is very well-worth visiting. It is the Sheldonian Theatre, one of the most important buildings in Oxford University. The theatre was paid for by Gilbert Sheldon (1598-1677), who ended his career as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Why is this building important in the history of science? Firstly, it was built by someone who would now be understood as a scientist. Although Wren is today most famous for his architectural work, of which St. Paul’s Cathedral is the most famous example, he had deep scientific interests. You can see this if you pay close attention to the Sheldonian Theatre.

Outwardly, it looks much like a building in the classical style, designed like so many other buildings in that time in accordance with Roman Architecture. In fact Wren drew inspiration from an ancient Roman building that had been drawn by Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) – the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome.

Design of the floor-plan of the Theatre of Marcellus from Serlio’s Seven Books of Architecture (1540).


Modern Seating Plan of the Theatre

File:The Sheldonian from across Broad Street.jpg

The Sheldonian Theatre

So does this building just show us that Wren copied ancient architectural ideas, in spite of his own engagement with the most modern ideas of his time? Actually, the answer is ‘no’. One remarkable feature of the building is its flat internal ceiling, which actually supports much of the weight of the roof structure and cupola above it. The ceiling is decorated with (removable) painted panels but in the original design it fulfilled a load-bearing function, something that should have been impossible because there were no timbers long enough to bridge the gap.

The painted panels are beautiful, but they conceal the ingenuity of the design used by Wren.


How did Wren get a flat ceiling that would also help hold up the roof? He turned to the mathematician John Wallis, who came up with an ingenious solution. Rather than explain myself, I quote from the blog ‘Maths in the City‘:

”Wallis’ devised an ingenious pattern of interlocking beams, so that every beam was supported at both ends – either by the walls or by other beams – while every beam also supported the ends of two other beams.  So for every beam, the downward forces from those resting on it are balanced by the upward forces from the beams, or wall, supporting it.   In an impressive feat of calculation, Wallis demonstrated that his geometrical flat floor could carry loads when supported by the walls alone by solving  a set of 25×25 simultaneous equations using just pen and paper!”

This is a model showing us what Wallis’s solution looked like:

Wallis’s Ingenious Solution


Many of Wren’s buildings concealed astonishing technical solutions, based on new ideas in mathematics and physics, beneath a veneer of ancient design rules.


2 thoughts on “The Sheldonian Theatre – Ancient and Modern

  1. Impressive!
    That’s quite interesting when you know how much effort is behind things that seems to be very simple like a slab, or roof, we see everyday in the city.

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