The first major project by Christopher Wren, Gilbert Sheldon could hardly have predicted how famous it, its designer and his own name would become. The Sheldonian theatre stands at the corner of Broad Street, Holywell Street, Catte Street and Parks Road in Oxford, backing on to the Bodleian Library.
It was built between 1664 and 1669, drawing architectural inspiration from the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. Oxford has often been an architectural battleground for competing styles, and the Sheldonian was a neo-classical reaction against the Gothic style. The unusual D-shape can make it hard to find the entrance, but there is a clear box office at the front (that is, the Broad Street side), with four smaller entrances around the edge, and some signposts to point you in the right direction.
Inside, the seats are basic, bench-style things running round the space. The balcony boxes by the organ have backless benches, so visitors intending to sit there for long need strong backs! There's also one grand throne.
As the University of Oxford's official ceremonial building, the Sheldonian has a primary purpose of serving the university for major events, including Matriculation, graduations, the honorary graduation event (Encaenia), and Congregation, the university's internal 'parliament'.
A main door leads straight out to the Divinity School so that important people can just go straight through. It's not used for most things, but at graduation ceremonies has a special use. Students are admitted in the academic dress of their present standing (e.g. undergraduate), then whip round the back, change into the dress of the degree they're obtaining, and run back in for a congratulatory handshake.
The building holds up to 1000 people, and the atmosphere when it's full is quite exhilarating. It can be hired for concerts and talks. Indeed, it was the first venue for Handel's Athalia in 1733. Now it provides a venue for the Oxford Bach Choir, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and a range of other visiting and local productions and events. It is also a venue during the Oxford Literary Festival, an annual spring event attracting a host of famous speakers and thousands of visitors.
The Sheldonian is worth a visit just for its ceiling, painted under King Charles II. Give yourself some time to sit back and stare. The painting is amazing. It was restored 2004-2008, with architectural paint researchers recreating Wren's original scheme. It tells an allegorical story of Truth descending on the Arts and Sciences, expelling ignorance from the University, heralding the Enlightenment's preoccupation with truth and reason.
It's also painted on a mathematically fascinating roof. The Sheldonian is renowned for having no beams across the top (it's too wide for any that long to be found), but using interlocking beams with trusses and screws in a novel structure around the side to keep the roof up with no internal columns disrupting the interior space. It was based on the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome, but this had no roof, and English weather made one essential. Wren therefore used the new 'geometrical flat floor' grid developed just twenty years earlier, in Oxford, by John Wallis.
Sheldon was, at the time, Warden of All Souls College and Archbishop of Canterbury. His philanthropy in commissioning this theatre has now been enjoyed for over 300 years, and his name lives on.
If you don't want to visit for an evening event, it is also open to the general public. Times will vary depending on closures for university events, so you should check carefully in advance. If you can't visit in person, there is also a virtual tour which lets you see the highlights from afar, or even plan your visit more carefully. There is limited pay and display parking on Broad Street, but you're best advised to walk over / use public transport.