Ceramic Resonators in Medieval Churches
an ongoing archaeoacoustic reseach project

supported by a fellowship from the Camargo Foundation (Cassis, France)
photographs from a research trip with Bénédicte Bertholon, Laurent Philippon, and Ugo Robert at La Chapelle Saint Blaise, Gras, France

Earthen pots, jars, and vases are found lodged in the masonry of many medieval churches and chapels. They look like little planets, speckled across soaring vaults and ogival arches, their circular mouths directed outward. Scraps from the historical record tell us these hollow vessels were intended to function as acoustic resonators. Proceeding from the empirical experience of singing into a large vase and hearing one’s voice resound, medieval masons situated vessels in the choir, apse, and nave—the primary sites of singing—with the hope that singers would sympathetically excite the resonant frequencies of these vessels with their voices, causing ephemeral sonorities to emanate from the upper recesses of the church, amplifying and enhancing the sung liturgy.

This acoustical spectacle was designed to serve as an act of liturgical magic. A disembodied chorus, hovering in the vaults, would spring to life during the incantation of the Divine Office and Mass, evoking the presence of angels, who were believed to manifest and ceaselessly sing during the liturgy. These efforts also stand as an imaginative attempt to shape reverberance, an acoustical phenomenon that was not merely a decorative or peripheral feature of medieval ecclesiastical music, but rather a highly responsive and expressive voice that cantors and choristers sang in dialogue with.