Take Me to Church: The Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project

24 Jan


How would we have heard sermons in Early Modern England? North Carolina State University Professors John Wall and David Hill aim to answer this question in their Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project.[1] Unsurprisingly, Wall and Hill discovered that the way Londoners interacted with sermons in the 17th century is very different to the ways in which scholars of the period interact with them today. While scholars and students of the Early Modern period read these sermons in the privacy and relative quiet of an office, library, or bedroom, the pious 17th century Londoner listened to them at a cathedral (often outdoors) where whispering crowds, chirping birds, barking dogs, and tolling bells all battled for attention. In order to replicate this experience, Wall and Hill, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, staged a digital reproduction of John Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral on November 5, 1622 through a combination of 3D modeling and auditory simulation technologies.

British historians and Early Modern scholars will know that the digital recreation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1622 must not have been an easy feat. Forty-four years after Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon, a fire ignited in a bakery on Pudding Lane. In early September 1666, thousands of wooden buildings were destroyed in what would later be known as the Great Fire of London. By the time the fire was contained, an estimated 100,000 people lost their homes and several important structures, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, burned to the ground.[2] The St. Paul’s Cathedral that stands in London today was constructed between 1675 and 1710.[3]

While the original building does not survive, Wall, Hill, and their production team used historical research to produce an accurate representation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1622. There is a great deal of information that we may never know about November 5, 1622—the number of people in the congregation and where they stood, the morning’s temperature, and all the possible ambient sounds. However, Wall and Hill found that there was also a number of facts that they did know. For instance, to determine the appropriate scale, they drew on recent archeological research from John Schofield who measured the dimensions of the original cathedral’s foundations. The appearance of Paul’s Cross and the churchyard were gleaned from several paintings and drawings from the 16th and 17th centuries. A manuscript of the Gunpowder sermon provided the words that the congregation heard and a knowledge of the Early Modern London accent, thanks to linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, helped Wall and Hill imagine the voice of Donne.[4]

Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project’s website hosts a wealth of information. The site features sections on the project’s historical research and background information on John Donne as well as information about the sermon, the physical space of the churchyard, and the makeup and attitude of the congregation. At the heart of the website are the sections that discuss the digital construction of St. Paul’s churchyard and the simulation of the space’s auditory landscape. The 3D model of the cathedral and its churchyard were created by Joshua Stevens, a graduate student in Architecture at North Carolina State University, in Google SketchUp. Further dimension and shading was added in Photoshop by Jordan Gray, a fellow graduate student in Architecture at NC State University. The team at Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project are currently in the process of reformatting their digital model for use in 3D virtual reality gaming headsets.

Although the entire project is a result of collaborative partnerships, this is most apparent in the discussion of the auditory simulation. The project’s audio was produced by Ben Markham and Matt Azevedo, acoustic engineers at Acentech Incorporated. Markham and Azevedo used the auralization program from CATT to create the model for St. Paul’s churchyard. Auralization reproduces digital sounds in such a way as to give listeners an “impression of how the music or the speech would sound if replayed in [a] modeled hall.”[5] Lastly, the voice for the sermon was provided by actor Ben Crystal; Crystal used a traditional 17th century London accent and spoke clearly and slowly so that the reverberations that would have been caused by the surrounding buildings did not muddle his speech.[6] Visitors to the site can not only listen to Donne’s sermon in its entirety from two different vantage points, they may also explore how sounds changed throughout the churchyard by selecting the size of the congregation (500, 1200, 2500, or 5000 attendees) and listening to a snippet of the sermon from eight distinct locations.[7]

Taken all together, the site is extremely user-friendly; there is no complicated software to use or technical knowledge necessary to benefit from the information the project provides. Visitors to the website need only click on a YouTube video to listen to the reproduced sermon or toggle between options as they explore the acoustics of the cathedral’s churchyard. The complexity of the project is in the behind-the-scenes research which is detailed on the site in several different sections. While some of the information is rather technically advanced, particularly the section on the auditory model, it is useful for those interested in creating acoustic simulations and not necessary for others to appreciate the project’s product.

The Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project is a boon to those interested in Early Modern England or those who want to experience history in an innovative way. The 3D modeling and digital simulations demonstrated by Wall, Hill, and their production team offer scholars and history buffs alike a new window into the past and the chance to listen in to a world that has long since been relegated to the pages of history.

[1]“Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project,” North Carolina State University, accessed January 24, 2017, https://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu.

[2] “The Great Fire of London,” Museum of London, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.fireoflondon.org.uk.

[3] “History,” The Chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral, accessed January 24, 2017, https://www.stpauls.co.uk/history-collections/history.

[4] “Framework,” https://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu/framework.

[5] “Room Acoustics: Auralization,” CATT-Acoustic, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.catt.se.

[6] See, Josh Jones, “Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation,” OpenCulture, http://www.openculture.com/2013/09/what-shakespeare-sounded-like-to-shakespeare.html for a discussion and demonstration of the Early Modern English accent.

[7] “Explore Audibility,” https://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu/experience.


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