The Sheldonian Theatre is the ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford. This is the place where students are admitted to the University at their Matriculation (becoming an official member of the University) and where they receive their degree. It is the venue for meetings of Congregation (the University’s parliament) and also for Encaenia, the annual ceremony to confer honorary degrees on men and women who have distinguished themselves on the world stage.
Prior to 1669 all major public ceremonies of the University were held in St Mary’s Church, but since they were social as well as academic occasions, churchmen thought it inappropriate that secular and rowdy ceremonies should continue to take place in a sacred building.
The Sheldonian was constructed between 1664 and 1669. The design was once thought to have been inspired by the Roman theatre of Marcellus which was open to the sky. This is no longer the case, but the design certainly makes allusions to the classical architecture of Roman antiquity and is shown with the arcaded treatment of the exterior and the gilded cords on the painted ceiling
The building was funded by Gilbert Sheldon, Warden of All Souls College and later Archbishop of Canterbury, at a cost of £14,470 11 shillings 11 pence and was the first major architectural design of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723).
The painted ceiling is the work of Robert Streater, Serjeant-Painter to King Charles II. Painted in Streater’s studio in Whitehall, London in 1668-9 before being transported to Oxford by barge, it comprises 32 separate panels showing Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel Ignorance from the University. It has been suggested that this is an allegory, depicting the ‘ignorant’ as the puritans and parliamentarians so recently removed from power by the ‘truthful’ monarchists who were rejoicing in the restoration of King Charles II in 1660.
In 2004 the decision was taken to remove all 32 painted canvas ceiling panels for conservation and repair. The first painting was returned nearly four years later in July 2008 and reinstatement of the ceiling was completed three months later.
The building was also originally designed to accommodate the University Press, which relocated to the neighbouring Clarendon Building in 1713.