The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project recreates the experience of being at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and hearing the preacher John Donne deliver the Gunpowder Day sermon of November 5, 1622 using historical documentation of the sermon. In 2014, the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project won the Award for Best DH Data Visualization in the 2014 DH Awards. The immersive experience is currently on display at the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. Headed by Professor of English, John N. Wall, as well as faculty from the architecture, archaeology, and linguistics departments, the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project truly represents the interdisciplinary nature of the digital humanities.
I interviewed John Wall about his work:
How did you conceive of this project?
I like to say that the technology finally caught up with my ambition. I have believed for years that in the case of religious experience, the contexts for religious writing, experience was central for understanding the subject. Sermons, for example, were preached in the context of worship services conducted on particular occasions and in specific physical locations. Worship in the post-Reformation Church of England was enabled by the liturgies printed in the Book of Common Prayer. People heard the Bible read in a specific order each year, as specified by the lectionary of the Prayer Book. Recitation of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer shaped the spiritual lives of Anglican clergy.
I sought to incorporate that understanding into my scholarly writing (see my Transformations of the Word, pub. U Georgia Press 1988, for example.) Doing so, however, meant that I had to spend a lot of time in my writing explaining how this worked, what its consequences were, etc. When I learned that digital modeling could create realistic images of lost buildings, I remembered the extensive set of engravings of St Paul’s Cathedral done by the Dutch artist Wenceslaus Hollar before the cathedral burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London in 1666. I first sought funding to build such a model. My first efforts to get funding from the NEH for this project were turned down, basically on the grounds that visual models were now being done frequently so there was nothing special about them.
“I like to say that the technology finally caught up with my ambition…Virtual Paul’s Cross went from an idea to a project as I learned about the capabilities of digital modeling. It grew from being about visual modeling to include acoustic modeling, and keeps on expanding as we learn the capabilities of the technology”
I learned from Bernie Frischer, when he was head of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, that people were beginning to do acoustic modeling as well as visual modeling, I sought to build a team to model the performance of John Donne’s sermon for November 5th, 1622 and to get funding to support our work. The NEH awarded us a grant to do this — the acoustic element being unusual and ground-breaking enough! — in 2011. We completed the Virtual Paul’s Cross website in 2013 (vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu) and also, in the fall of 2013, installed an immersive version of the project in NC State’s high-tech Hunt Library.
We then sought funding to complete our vision by modeling a full day of worship inside the cathedral, which we received from the NEH in 2015. The Virtual Cathedral Project is now approaching completion, and will enable the user to experience a full day of worship, specifically Easter Day in 1624, with sung services of Morning Prayer, the Great Litany, Holy Communion with a sermon, and sung Evening Prayer with another sermon, this one, the sermon Donne preached that day in the cathedral. Check us out at virtualdonne.chass.ncsu.edu.
Was it originally conceptualized as an interdisciplinary DH project or did it evolve into one?
Virtual Paul’s Cross went from an idea to a project as I learned about the capabilities of digital modeling. It grew from being about visual modeling to include acoustic modeling, and keeps on expanding as we learn the capabilities of the technology, both for the initial modeling and also for communication of the project through the web, in immersive installations, and now through 3D VR display technology.
How did you get in touch with other researchers involved with the project and get them on board?
This project was interdisciplinary from the beginning, since it called for using technological expertise in visual and acoustic modeling to bring together data and scholarship from architectural history, archaeology, church history, political history, cultural history, rhetoric, religious history, literary history, and finally, historical records of climate, weather, and urban design. I assembled two groups of folks to help me — the Production Team of folks with the technical and scholarly expertise to get the project done, and the Advisory Committee, a gathering of experts who have looked over our shoulders, provided advice and information to guide us in our work, written letters of support, and given credibility to our project. I found them, one at a time, by identifying the kinds of expertise I needed, locating the best folks to help me, and finding within myself the courage and determination to ask them to serve. For each person, there is a different story, but in all cases I have been honored and humbled at the calibre of folks who have been willing to sign on.
What, if any, obstacles did your project face?
There have been obstacles at pretty much every turn. I had to learn the capabilities and limits of several new ways of doing things, especially in the technological area.
I have had to persist in seeking out folks I needed to join the team, which meant that I had to accept rejection from time to time, or deal with the fact that some folks needed more money to join up than I had available. I have had to rely a good bit on serendipity, finding able people sometimes the old-fashioned way by searching the scholarship for them but other times simply because I brought up the project in casual conversation with someone who happened to know another person who happened to be just the person I needed to know at just that moment.
“I have had to rely a good bit on serendipity, finding able people sometimes the old-fashioned way by searching the scholarship for them but other times simply because I brought up the project in casual conversation with someone who happened to know another person who happened to be just the person I needed to know at just that moment.“
I have also had to persist in trying and trying again to get funding. It took 4 tries to get the initial grant, and 3 tries to get the second, larger one. In each case, I learned from failure, in ways that helped me refine my understanding of what I wanted to do and how I articulated that to the funding agencies.
The most interesting obstacle, however, has been discovering that some members of the scholarly community have not been willing to accept the outcomes of what we’ve been doing as real scholarship in the humanities, especially when what we have learned we have learned entirely from our work with our models, and for which we can find no support in the historic record. One member of my original Advisory Committee resigned, for example, when we came to argue that preachers at Paul’s Cross must have had some way of keeping track of time as they delivered their sermons, other than the conventional hour glass we can see in use in contemporary paintings and engravings of sermons being delivered during this period. This has led to helpful new discoveries in the epistemology of historical research.