Famous Libraries: The Wren Library

When you picture a library in your mind, what is the first thing you see? It might be rows and rows of books, comfy chairs to curl up in, or amazing architecture. The beautiful thing about libraries is that wherever they are in the world or whenever they were constructed, each has a story to tell, whether through the books they house or the artwork within their walls. One library that stands out among the thousands is the Wren Library in Cambridge, England. 

The Wren Library is known for its special collections dating back to the 13th century and beautifully crafted stained glass windows. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1676 and completed in 1695, the Wren Library is situated beside the River Cam. Wren stands out among the rest not just for its immense collections of medieval manuscripts, such as the 13th century Anglo-Norman “Trinity Apocalypse and Romance of Alexander,” the 14th century Middle English alliterative poetry of William Langland, and Sir Isaac Newton’s personal and annotated copy of “Principia Mathematica.” 

Wren is also among the most famous libraries because of the intricate stained glass window on the south wall of the library. The window depicts Sir Isaac Newton being introduced to King George III, who stands in front of Francis Bacon with two young seraphs and a semi-nude woman watching the scene from above. The stained glass window, completed in 1775 and illustrated by Italian painter Giovanni Battista Cipriani, represents the birth of knowledge and the importance of education. The painting was made possible because of a donation left by Dr. Robert Smith, mathematician and Master of Trinity after he died in 1768. 

Wren is credited as one of the first libraries that was built to bring natural light into the room. The stained glass window and other large windows in Wren flooded light into the library, allowing for comfortable light levels for patrons. The beautiful Renaissance architecture of Wren, including the famous stained glass window, still stands today. Although very little has changed aesthetically to the library, in 2017, a sculpture dubbed ‘Free Object’ by Antony Gormley was installed to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the library and college’s origins. 

Wren Library is a testament to the idea that a library is more than the books within its walls. Although the manuscripts and literature housed in Wren are both impressive and extensive, the most startling feature is the stained glass window. The window symbolizes the importance of learning and wisdom that can be achieved through reading. Art is an umbrella term for paintings and literature, and Wren highlights through its architecture and special collections that literature and artwork go hand-in-hand. 

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