Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 18, 2018
Bissera V. Pentcheva Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017. 304 pp.; 50 color ills.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $64.95 (9780271077253)

Although much researched, the Justinian church of Hagia Sophia (532–37 and 562) proves to be a still unfathomable well of architectural revelations that bear on the building’s significance as a monument of Byzantine spirituality. This book is a welcome contribution that offers conceptual vistas through which to understand the metaphysical effects of the building’s material and artistic fabric.

Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium centers on the claim that during the liturgy in the church all participants—congregation, officiating clergy, and choirs—enjoyed a multisensory, transcendent experience. Both the visual qualities of the material fabric of the church and the acoustic qualities enabled the believer to partake in the divine and become an “image of God” (eikōn tou Theou). Main questions relate to the elements indicated in the book’s title—the material, acoustic, and spatial stagecraft that led the worshiper to believe that he attained closeness to God. What enabled believers to attain closeness to divinity and experience the church as if being in a place between heaven and earth? Which senses initiated the encounter with the divine and how were these mediated? Can the exploration of chant and space lead to the reconstruction of this encounter? How was the performativity of the sacred space created, specifically under the dome, and what role did it play in leading the faithful closer to God? These questions are not easy to answer in light of later modifications, Ottoman and others, to the building that interfere with our capability to reconstruct the sensory aesthetics and acoustics of Hagia Sophia that would yield insight into the monument’s aurality. Relying on interdisciplinary methods, Pentcheva probes these questions through dense analyses that bring the architecture and decoration of Hagia Sophia into relation with Byzantine artworks; with various literary, dramaturgical, and liturgical sources (with Paul the Silentiary, a contemporary of the building of Hagia Sofia, as a major figure); and with acoustic measurements and reconstructions of selected liturgical chants performed in the Great Church, through computer auralizing techniques.

Capturing the sounds of the past and their performative dimensions in the sacred space has lately been of great interest among Byzantine art historians. The importance and amplitude of the investigation of this subject in Byzantine studies can be grasped from the ongoing acoustic projects of a team of acousticians and architectural and art historians, with archaeologists and musicologists (Icons of Sound [Stanford University, est. 2008;]), whence the current book draws, and another at UCLA/USC (est. 2014; But where scholars, including Pentcheva, have focused on the sensory—mainly optical angle—and the aesthetic experience of the participant, or the aurality of the religious monument (Pentcheva, “Hagia Sophia and Multisensory Aesthetics,” Gesta 50, no. 2, 2011: 93–111; Nadine Schibille, Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience [Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014]), the study under review attempts to tie these aspects to the spiritual. According to Pentcheva, the spiritual experience of inspiriting (empsychōsis) builds on the intermingling of visual and acoustic mirroring (esoptron) structures that abound in Hagia Sophia. The multisensory and transcendent experience charts, in her words, “a new poetics of viewership and experience in Byzantium” (9).

Pentcheva introduces her book with a short survey of the history and art of Hagia Sophia, and liturgical performance, particularly under the dome. She then proceeds to ground the methodological strands that will allow her to argue for the believer’s experience of sensory and ephemeral nearness to divinity. One such strand is phenomenology, bolstered by Heidegger’s essay “The Thing,” which aids in exploring the reflection (mirroring) of the Spirit in the space and material fabric of Hagia Sophia and in other works of art. Another method is sensory archaeology, which uses digital means to explore the sensorial experiences of past societies. This method serves Pentcheva and her team from Stanford University in reconstructing sound and aural experience in the church.

The first two chapters set out to inquire into the relationship between sound and acoustics and the manifestation of the divine wisdom (sophia) in two spaces in the church: the open area under the dome, or the “beautiful choros” (kallichoros), so named by Paul the Silentiary, including the ambo, where the chanting choruses stood (chapter 1); and the altar, where the Eucharist unfolded (chapter 2). Exploring the synergy of chant and the reverberant acoustics of the void space of the kallichoros, Pentcheva identifies it as a Heideggerian “thing” that creates a sensorial field in which the metaphysical can be experienced in the phenomenal. In chapter 1 she argues that sophia enters the kallichoros through the ordered movement of renewal (choros). She also introduces two notions to substantiate the “mirroring” claim: one, the enōpion view, designating the heavenward gaze toward the golden cupola in the church; and the other, the katōpion view, looking down. The eloquent discussion of the various terms, and a series of Middle Byzantine miniatures that employ a multiplanar composition, build understanding of the ways in which the otherwise distant view of the cupola, implying divinity, was brought down to the congregation. In chapter 2, Pentcheva looks at manuscripts with liturgical chants and psalters with marginal miniatures to find signs of the inspiriting of both the altar at the Consecration (Kathierōsis) rite and the congregation.

Moving into chapter 3, “Icons of Breath,” Pentcheva investigates the implications of mirroring and inspiriting with regard to the believer’s body. She uses the liturgy of the Consecration rite, including the chant, as a context for pointing out that when partaking in it the “faithful can recuperate, albeit ephemerally, a lost capacity to become an ‘image of God’” (76). Through the breath and mouth while singing, the worshiper becomes a “performative eikōn” (70). Pentcheva explores this performative iconicity and the ways it takes nonrepresentational shape in visual, textual, and musical materials.

Chapter 4 tackles the question of auralization in the Great Church, interrelating the liturgical sound and chant discussed in the first three chapters with the monument’s architectural shell. Going into the particulars of the digital technology employed by Stanford’s project Icons of Sound to measure reverberant acoustics in situ, and the reconstruction of the Byzantine melismatic chant in a series of performances in the United States, Pentcheva argues that the reverberant acoustics in Hagia Sophia enhanced chant in ways that went way beyond human speech. The intelligible chant and the reverberant, “wet” aurality created in the church would have contributed to the spiritual experience of the faithful.

Chapter 5, “Marble, Water, and Chant,” continues the argument of the “liquidified” aurality of the faithful and divine nearness through the visual metaphor of moving waters. Pentcheva evocatively associates the optical glitter and reverberation of the polymorphic, aniconic interior decor with the aural manifestations of reflection, and ties both the optical and the visual to the linguistic terms of the iterative marmar-, the Greek word for marble.

Pentcheva returns in chapter 6 to the mirroring notion and queries its synaesthetic and performative nature. She examines the manifestation of these aspects through the use of the mirror metaphor in textual sources, Byzantine chant, and liturgical objects. She concludes the chapter with the statement that disorientation experienced by the congregation between what is up and what is down leads them into a transcendental realm.

In chapter 7 Pentcheva argues that liturgical practice in Hagia Sophia and the spiritual experience it elicited is manifest also in pagan literature describing the resonance of divine presence. The pagan sense of divine presence, in turn, informs Christian writings contemporary to the building of the church. She draws on the Late Antique collection of anacreontic verse, the ekphrasis and erotic poetry of Paul the Silentiary, and the Anacreontea of John of Gaza. She observes that in spite of the “shared notion of creativity as mirroring and inspiriting processes, implicating imitation” (170), in both pagan and Christian texts, this shared notion does not translate into a figural decor taking up pagan models. This artistic approach, she points out, contrasts with the embrace of figural pagan models by artists of the Italian Renaissance. The chapter wraps up with a discussion of Neoplatonic ideas popular among the individuals involved in the building of Hagia Sophia.

A short conclusion brings together the book’s main themes and rounds it out. Pentcheva’s project to capture the fleeting, phenomenal, and ineffable manifestation of the heavenly in the Great Church, and the ways in which the faithful may have experienced it, is appealing and captivating. Her painstaking exploration results in a well-grounded interdisciplinary study that maintains a careful balance between the analysis of pictures, words, and sound. Basing her argument on critical approaches, the book molds innovative and pertinent interpretations, as exemplified by the persuasive discussion of the iconicity of the human body, or the eikōn tou Theou (chapter 3). However, some themes and ideas are driven long and hard, for example, the harnessing of Renaissance works of art in chapter 7 to further emphasize that the aniconic decorative program of the Great Church (discussed at length in chapter 5) better and more suitably reflected the concept of empsychōsis than the pagan figural models employed by Renaissance artists (183–84). All things considered, the book reminds us not only how much the study of aurality in Byzantine studies has yet to offer but also what the hidden aspects of Hagia Sophia might still yield. 

Mati Meyer
Associate Professor, Department of Literature, Language and Arts, The Open University of Israel