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Review: The Virtual John Donne Project

A review of The Virtual John Donne Project, a project exploring worship and preaching in 17th century England, directed by John N. Wall

Published onJun 24, 2024
Review: The Virtual John Donne Project

The Virtual John Donne Project

Project Director
John N. Wall, North Carolina State University

Project URLs,

Project Reviewer
Erin McCarthy, University of Galway

Project Overview

John N. Wall

The Virtual John Donne Project uses digital modeling technology to enable scholars to explore the experience of worship and preaching in England in the early 17th century. Linking together the project’s four websites is the figure of John Donne, perhaps the most significant English poet of the early 17th century, during his career as priest of the Church of England, from his ordination in 1615 through his tenure as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (1621 – 1631). The project brings to virtual life three major events in Donne’s priestly career by recreating eight worship services in which Donne participated, including three during which he preached. The use of digital technology enables us to experience these services — and Donne’s sermons — as events that unfold moment by moment in the visual and acoustic spaces in which these events originally took place. 

The Virtual Donne Project is embodied by four websites, including an umbrella site that introduces the concept of a post-Reformation Church of England as chiefly pragmatic, corporate, and liturgical, finding its identity lived out in the daily cycles of worship in England’s cathedrals, parish churches, and private chapels. This site links the user to three other projects that collectively make available the experience of public worship and preaching inside and outside St Paul’s Cathedral in the mid-1620’s, while Donne was Dean of the Cathedral, and in Trinity Chapel at Lincoln’s Inn, where Donne had been its preacher in the late 1610’s.  

The Virtual Cathedral Project includes visual recreations of the interior and exterior of St Paul’s Cathedral and its surrounding Churchyard, available in single imagines, as fly-around videos, and, for the choir, as an immersive VR experience. The project also includes recreations of two full days of worship: Easter Day in 1624 and the First Sunday in Advent in 1625. The first, a festival occasion, includes services required by the Book of Common Prayer: Morning Prayer, the Great Litany, and Holy Communion with sermon in the morning, and Evensong with sermon in the afternoon. The other, a ferial, or ordinary day, includes the prescribed services of Morning and Evening Prayer. 

The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project includes visual recreations of the Paul’s Cross preaching station in the northeast corner of Paul’s Churchyard, framed by the Cathedral’s Choir, St Paul’s School, and the surrounding bookstalls and printers’ residences. The project provides the experience of hearing John Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day, November 5th, 1622 in Paul’s Churchyard, the physical location for which it was composed. The user can hear Donne’s sermon from eight different positions in Paul’s Churchyard and in the presence of four different sizes of crowd. Users of the site are reminded of the outdoor location of the Preaching Station by the sounds of horses, birds, and dogs as well as the swelling and ebbing of the crowd’s response to Donne’s preaching. 

The Virtual Trinity Chapel Project includes visual recreations of the interior and exterior of Trinity Chapel as it looked on Thursday, May 22nd, 1623, the Feast of the Ascension, the day it was consecrated and opened for worship on the grounds of London’s Lincoln’s Inn. The Trinity Chapel Project provides a recreated script for this worship service, including Morning Prayer, the Great Litany, and Holy Communion with the sermon that Donne preached on this occasion. It also includes transcriptions and translations of diary entries, letters, official records and other accounts of what is likely to have been the most thoroughly documented worship service of Donne’s entire career as a priest of the Church of England. While there are no restaged services here (the grant money ran out), all the data for such recreations are included.  

Principal investigators for these projects included three faculty at NC State University—John N. Wall, Professor of English, David Hill, Professor of Architecture, and Yun Jing, now Professor of Acoustics at Penn State University. John Schofield, author of St Paul’s Before Wren (2011) provided results of his archaeological research. Over a hundred people worked on one aspect of these projects or another. Transcriptions and translations of Latin documents were provided by Zola Packman of NC State’s Department of World Languages. Visual models and the website were created by graduate students in the College of Design. Development of the iPack Simpa acoustic modeling software, the acoustic model of St Paul’s Choir and the Cross Yard, and the auralization of worship services were created by students in the College of Engineering. Scripts of worship services and of two sermons in early modern London dialect were prepared by linguist David Crystal and recorded in Cambridge and London, UK, with professional actors performing spoken parts and the Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, directed by Richard Pinel, taking the part of St Paul’s musicians. 

Funding came from Digital Humanities Start-Up and Implementation Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as internal funding from the Department of English and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at NC State.

While most scholars of the English Reformation focus on theological essays and sermons considered apart from their liturgical contexts, the Virtual Donne Project makes available for study the faith of the Church of England as embodied in its cycles of worship scripted by the Book of Common Prayer. Thus the primary audience for the Virtual John Donne Project is the community of scholars interested in the post-Reformation English Church. These websites enable scholars to experience worship and preaching as scripted by the Book of Common Prayer as it unfolds moment by moment to create the embodied faith of the English Reformers as a public, corporate, liturgical tradition.  

The project was developed in accord with principles for transparency in developing computer-based models of historic sites set forth in the London Charter for the Computer-based Visualisation of Cultural Heritage. All visualizations are based on historic visual images of the Cathedral and data from archaeological work on the Cathedral’s foundations still in the ground in London. The project lists all research sources and clarifies how various kinds of historic materials came together to make possible what one sees and hears on this site. Clear distinctions are made between aspects of the site that: 1) represent historic information, 2) offer representative approximations of lost information, or 3) depend on the recreation of lost experiences. 

Project Review

Erin McCarthy

The Virtual John Donne Project comprises four linked websites that, taken together, immerse users in John Donne’s work as a prominent clergyman and leader within the early modern Church of England. Developed by an interdisciplinary team at North Carolina State University, the project developed visual and acoustic models of St. Paul’s Cathedral, including the Churchyard and Paul’s Cross, and Trinity Chapel, Lincoln’s Inn, as they would have been during the early 17th century. The Paul’s Cross site was launched at a public installation on November 5, 2013, exactly 391 years after Donne delivered the sermon it presents. It was followed in 2017 by the Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Virtual Trinity Chapel, which is undated.

The project team describes its goal in particularly vivid terms on the Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral site: “Materializing the Ephemeral.” This is as ambitious as it sounds, but the project team accomplishes it by defining its parameters and scope carefully. Each site provides a detailed rationale and bibliography outlining the precise temporal and intellectual parameters of that portion of the project. Virtual Paul’s Cross reconstructs on Donne’s 1622 Gunpowder Day sermon; Virtual St. Paul’s follows the Book of Common Prayer service as it would have been conducted on two specific days in 1624 and 1625; and Virtual Trinity Chapel focuses on the consecration of the chapel at Lincoln’s Inn in 1623, a well-documented turning point in Anglican worship. The sites are therefore able to offer users deep, immersive experiences of specific points in time rather than broad generalizations about early modernity, the 17th century, or a similarly capacious temporal span. Although financial constraints prevented development of robust models of Trinity Chapel comparable to those offered on the first two sites, the project team has made all of the relevant data available so that someone else might. 

The technology is highly sophisticated, drawing upon best practices not only in digital humanities but also in architecture and acoustics. Consequently, the project not only offers a rich interactive experience for humanities scholars but represents a genuine contribution to these disciplines as well. The project sites thoroughly document the evidence underlying the creation and implementation of each model. What becomes very clear is that every detail, from the ambient noise in a sermon recording to the neighboring buildings visible in the visual models, has been considered and chosen purposefully.

The Virtual John Donne Project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North Carolina State University. It was also supported by the North Carolina State University libraries, College of Design, and College of Engineering. In other words, this project is the result of a genuinely interdisciplinary collaboration. Methods and techniques from each field come to bear on the project, the results of which are useful to scholars across multiple disciplines. The project thus exemplifies the benefits of collaboration across areas that are too often siloed by institutions, funders, or mere habit. 

Scholarly organizations have noticed: Virtual Paul’s Cross Project has been awarded the John Donne Society’s 2013 Award for Distinguished Publication (2013) and the 2014 Award for Best DH Data Visualization from DH Awards, and Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral was first runner-up in the data visualization category at the DH Awards 2022. But the project has also garnered interest beyond academia; the team maintains lists of articles about each project on the relevant sites, and the project has been mentioned by St. Paul’s official Twitter account and described in an article in The Guardian. It thus exemplifies the potential for innovation, impact, and reach that truly collaborative, interdisciplinary digital work can have.

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