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Relive John Donne's 17th-century sermons in virtual reality project


University researchers build acoustic and visual models to recreate poet's 1622 Gunpowder Day sermon

Researchers have created an auditory and visual simulation of what it might have been like to stand in front of St Paul's Cross pulpit in the courtyard of St Paul's Cathedral almost 400 years ago, being preached to by poet John Donne.

Literature and architecture researchers at North Carolina State university created a script and built an acoustic model to simulate the way Donne's 1622 Gunpowder Day sermon would have sounded from different vantage points within St Paul's courtyard.

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Donne is best remembered as a metaphysical poet, but in addition to penning love poems such as The Flea, he was an experienced preacher who became dean of St Paul's in 1621.

Dr John Wall, professor of English at NC State and leader of the Virtual Paul's Cross Project, said: "We know that large crowds showed up to hear Donne's sermons, but it was unclear whether they could even hear what was being said. By using the models we created for this project, we learned that the courtyard space allowed sound to reverberate, amplifying the voice of the speaker."

He continued: "This means the sermon had to be delivered at a measured pace to keep the speech from being garbled as the reverberating sounds overlapped. Those are insights we wouldn't have without this project."

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The recreated sermon was originally delivered on Gunpowder Day, 5 November 1622 by Donne, speaking from Paul's Cross pulpit in the courtyard of St Paul's Cathedral. It was written to reassure English puritans that King James I's desire to secure an allegiance with the Spanish, by arranging a match between his son Charles and the Spanish princess Maria Anna, did not presage a return to Catholicism for England.

Donne was urged to take up holy orders by the King, and was sometimes prevailed upon to preach in his favour; the Gunpowder Day sermon was supposed to remind listeners that the king had been the primary target of Guy Fawkes pro-Catholic plot 17 years earlier.

St Paul's was burned to the ground in 1666, so the NC State University used historic documents and images to create a visual model showing architectural details of the gothic St Paul's Cathedral, and a sound model that takes account of the acoustic properties of materials such as stone, glass and brick.

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