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Meeting John Donne: The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project
by Matthew J. Smith

Wall, John N., Principal Investigator, Virtual Paul’s Cross Project: A Digital Re-creation of John Donne’s Gunpowder Day Sermon.


The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project: A Digital Re-creation of John Donne’s Gunpowder Day Sermon attempts to reconstruct the sermon-as-delivered by providing digital acoustical and visual renditions of Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon of November 5th, 1622, at London’s preeminent preaching spot: the outdoor station of St. Paul’s Cathedral, called Paul’s Cross. The website provides several navigational categories: educational and contextual essays; an overview of the evidence and sources for the virtual reconstruction; details about the technological process of creating the virtual experience; discussion of Donne’s sermons and preaching; analysis of the ambient factors that might environ a sermon at Paul’s Cross; an outline of the evolution of Donne’s sermons, from idea to print; and, most importantly, several modules for visualizing and hearing Donne’s sermon in context. While its digital reenactments offer many teaching and research possibilities, the VPCP’s most significant intellectual contribution is an argument for treating early modern sermons as events, as is implied by its integration of text, time, and performance conditions.

Currently, scholars of John Donne and early modern sermons turn to the Brigham Young University’s online archive of George Potter and Evelyn Simpson’s ten-volume The Sermons of John Donne (1953-62) and its searchable indices of words, dates, sermon venues, and sermon occasions. It is useful for conveniently finding ancillary evidence of mainstream or authorized theological opinion—supposedly represented by Donne. However, such selective gleaning of Donne’s print and manuscript sermons is limited in practice insofar as it often links material from several discreet sermons, each composed and printed well after the original sermon was delivered before an audience on a specific sacred or even secular occasion. Motivating the VPCP is a desire to hold readers of early modern sermons accountable to the real-time coming-to-being of sermons in aural and visual environments. Pulling the sermon out from academic spaces—typically “quiet, enclosed, sparsely populated, well-lit and climate controlled”—changes the way that we measure the cultural impact of Donne’s words. The creators of the VPCP are right to insist that the necessary speculation involved in theorizing audience experience and environment is not reason enough to settle for readings of early modern sermons exclusively in textual form, a method that is anything but historically neutral. On one side we are forced to speculate, but on the other we run the risk of prejudicing our understanding of the theological mainstream and of Donne’s own thought to the re-contextualized social and commercial biases of print culture. Not the least of these biases—and the Project mentions this in several places—is that Donne’s printed sermons underwent at least five previous iterations, including, among others, Donne’s sermon notes and the sermon as actually delivered.

Donne’s Paul’s Cross sermons were two-hour events, from 10am to 12pm, and they were bookended by calls, benedictions, prayers, bells, psalm-singing, and other liturgical activities. Except for the singing, the Project’s recording offers audio of the entire event. The Gunpowder Day sermon is the only sermon reproduced, chosen because a scribal copy of Donne’s manuscript exists, containing Donne’s own corrections (British Library, MS Royal 17.B.XX). The sermon delivered on November 5th, 1622, was delivered actually inside the cathedral because of inclement weather, but the creators of the VPCP have moved it outdoors to avoid presuming too specifically about the historical event.

John Wall is the Principal Investigator of the Project, and his team includes David Hill (architect), John Schofield (archaeologist), Joshua Stephens (visual model), Ben Crystal (actor), Ben Markham and Matthew Azevedo (acoustic model), and others. The heart of the website is its virtual experiences. Users can explore visual reconstructions of Paul’s Churchyard, audio recordings of the sermon and ambient noise, or both at once. The site provides a visual rendering of the Churchyard surrounding Paul’s Cross, explorable from still perspectives as well as fly-overs. To the west and south of the yard are the quire, its adjacent sermon house, the north transept of the building, and the preaching station itself; to the north and south, along Paternoster Row and Old Change Street, are booksellers and homes, as well as Paul’s school and Paul’s gate.

The visual model was based on modern archaeological measurements as well as on a small but practically exhaustive collection of early modern depictions of the cathedral and its yard. The most prominent of these are John Gipkin’s diptych painting of Paul’s Cross at sermon-time, the Museum of London’s mid-sixteenth-century copperplate map of London, several seventeenth-century woodcuts of crowds at Paul’s Cross, and, of course, Wenseslaus Hollar’s many architectural drawings and engravings of the cathedral and its grounds. The Great Fire of London, which burnt St. Paul’s in 1666, is the primary reason for such limited archival material. To grasp the scope of this particular visualization it is important to recognize that each of these historical sources is uniquely perspectival, emphasizing certain aspects of the Cathedral’s identity in city life. The Gipkin diptych, for instance, shrinks the cathedral and exaggerates the sizes of people to fill the churchyard and demonstrate a social atmosphere. The copperplate map, moreover, truncates the horizontal breadth of the cathedral to emphasize its steeple and city-wide eminence, whereas Hollar’s engravings are architectural and structural and thus exclude people. The VPCP’s rendition is equally perspectival, emphasizing certain social and phenomenological realities. It is like some of Hollar’s pieces that place the viewer within the cathedral and its precinct, but it is original by decentering the viewer and filling the space with people and sometimes visual obstacles.

The acoustic model is likewise robust in historical detail. A smaller version of the visual model was made for acoustical simulation. Shakespearean actor Ben Crystal performs the Gunpowder Day sermon, but his voice is far from the only sound heard. The recording also includes ambient noises of bells, birds, wind, dogs, and people shuffling, talking, and coughing. Ambient sounds can be heard on their own or in the sermon recordings. Acoustical projections of the sermon, moreover, simulate eight different positions in the yard and sermon house, from benches close to the speaker to the wall of the north transept at the end of the yard. Users can also adjust the crowd size from 500 to 5,000 large. One of the site’s most interactive and innovative functions is the “Explore Audibility” map of the Churchyard, where one can test eight listening positions and four crowd sizes in conjunction. Such tests of audibility are much more than volume controls, since the performance anticipates audibility variables, including the bells; for instance, Crystal pauses at the fifteen-minute bell tolls, often for rhetorical effect. The Project’s creators made educated guesses about other rhetorical moments when Donne may have elicited audience response, sometimes slowing or speeding cadence, growing louder to regain audience attention, or pausing for emphasis. An example in Track 3 of the sermon recording exclaims the words, “God himselfe, in his vnity, is the Model, he is the Type of Monarchy,” accentuating the commas so as to emphasize the parallel between obeying God and obeying the king—an effect perhaps punctuated by the presence of the Lord Mayor in the sermon house.   

The VPCP was installed in panoramic adjoining screens and twenty-one speakers at the James B. Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. This is an ideal way to experience the site. Providing free access to this virtual resource online as it does unfortunately means that many visits to the Churchyard will come from small computer screens and insufficient speakers resting on virtual auditors’ laps. Moreover, while portions of the sermon and its ambience are audible throughout the site, the full sermon and its liturgy are segmented into nine recordings via Youtube video interface, each segment separated by bell ringing. This fragmentation and the machines that most viewers will probably use to hear and view the site somewhat combat the aim of virtual immersion. 

Still, the website’s utilities for teaching and research are numerous. Of course, students can listen to a sermon as best we know it may have sounded, offering them an online “text” that draws on students’ familiarity with online video media. In addition, simply simulating ambient noise and audibility challenges, in conjunction with the preacher’s rhetorical response to audibility, throws light on many of the important dissemination and heuristic ulterior purposes of early modern sermons; students might consider how the reenactment represents state-sanctioned religious practice; or they might recognize this as a context for state authorities to pronounce official response to national crises such as the Gunpowder Plot. The performative and rhetorical emphasis on organizing the long sermon, among ambient distractions, also provides a real-time correlative to sermon-goers’ widespread practices of note taking and memorization. We might also consider the economic dimensions to sermon-going, as audibility is a direct effect of one’s wealth: what does a sermon sound like to an auditor who can afford a paid seat on a bench in the front, compared to the student or poorer laborer standing near the back of a crowd of 5,000? For instance, the preacher’s voice echoes far more in the sermon house, where the wealthy and civic and ecclesial officials sat, than it does in the yard. There is less ambient space between words and full stops in the sermon house. At least according to this recording, the cadence and pitch changes are more pronounced; and the entire sermon has a perceivable musical quality, perhaps integrating more closely with the call-and-response liturgy before the sermon and with the psalm-singing that probably followed it. This musical character is especially coherent—and, relative to hearer’s educations, also especially intelligible—in Donne’s many Latin phrases, as when he declares, near the end of the sermon, that “our exclamation turnd to acclamation, so our De profundis, is a Gloria in Excelsis.” The Lord Mayor and his peers in the sermon house would have experienced a particular resonation and sway with Donne’s accordant Glor-i-a.

One final noteworthy contribution of the VPCP is its consolidation of historical sources. On a superficial level, what the website offers is simply one rhetorical performance among countless possibilities and atmospheres; very little information exists about the conditions of sermons at Paul’s Cross. But energizing these scarce sources is itself a remarkable accomplishment for this project. Scholars who are familiar with the early modern visual and literary artifacts on which the Project draws will see them synthesized and animated through multi-dimensional interaction with one another. The Project capitalizes on the fact that most of these archival sources are already synesthetic in their visual and textual attempts to harken the aural experience of Paul’s Cross. It is on the basis of such multi-perspectival historical sources that John Wall and the VPCP champion speculation as a historical method, suggesting that we adopt a broad approach to historicizing knowledge in the context of sermon events. Indeed, hearing Donne’s sermon feels significantly different from reading it. That is, watching the Gunpowder Day sermon on the VPCP is admittedly distracting; apart from the sounds of birds and people and the magisterial architecture, there is a lot to do—many navigation items to follow on the screen, texts to scroll past, multiple tabs to open at one time. This, in fact, is not unlike the interactive experience of sermon-going. Knowing a sermon is not always linear and intellectual; it is also kinetic, piecemeal, and collaborative between preacher and audience. And the reconstruction of this multivalent meaning-making is reflected in the project itself and the way it culls information about sound, sight, space, and embodiment from an archive of sources traditionally appreciated primarily, if not exclusively, for studies of rhetoric and theology.

The VPCP plans to expand by creating a companion simulation of a sermon in the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is a development worthy of anticipation, since early modern writers frequently referenced Paul’s Walk—the market and trade center at the back of the cathedral nave—as a trope for church decadence and social change. It will also provide a useful comparison to the acoustics of the outdoor sounds of Paul’s Cross.


Matthew J. Smith
Azusa Pacific University




  • Newport Beach Concrete And Masonry 4 months, 1 week ago

    The heart of the website is its virtual experiences.

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Cite as:

Matthew J. Smith, "Meeting John Donne: The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project," Spenser Review 44.2.33 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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