Hagia Sophia

Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium

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Bissera V. Pentcheva
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , August
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium is, simply put, an extraordinary achievement, an unprecedented exploration of the liturgical experience afforded by the Great Church of Constantinople in its nine-century career (532-1453 CE) as a Christian holy place. Bissera V. Pentcheva conducts a comprehensive analysis of the media framing of the worship of Hagia Sophia: from the architecture of the church, along with the panoply of its decorations and appointments, to the poetic and musical structure of classical Byzantine chants, as these would have been performed and perceived within the distinctive acoustic of the building. She probes the material properties of the ritual objects as used within the divine services, and ponders the psychology of typical worshippers, whose imagination allowed for synesthetic perception—in tandem with theological intuition—to produce, or better, to manifest, the signal phenomenon of “inspiriting” (empsychōsis).

Astonishing in the scope of its ambitions, this book compels the contemporary reader to appreciate why the tenth-century emissaries of Kyivan Rus’ might attest, in that famous episode destined to lead to the conversion of the East Slavs: “[w]e knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty and we are at a loss how to describe it” (3).

A bevy of Greek terms recurs in Hagia Sophia, as do many leitmotifs. In addition to empsychōsis, noted above, we hear of “mirroring” (esoptron and kataptron); of the perspective from below upwards, and vice-versa (enōpion and katōpion); as well as of the luminous expanse suspended beneath the dome of the Great Church (kallichoros); itself representative of a mystical space between heaven and earth (metaxu); and there are many more, including aiolomorphos (“shape changing”), daidolos (“variegated”) and marmarygma (“glittering”)—all period references to the idiosyncratic appearance of the interior surfaces of the church when animated by the daily modulations of sunlight, on the one hand and, on the other, the myriad of oil lamps which originally complemented the natural lighting.

To enter into Pentcheva’s text is thus akin to crossing into a foreign land and learning: literally, a new way of speaking (and therefore thinking) about “sound, space,” and their many corollaries, and “spirit”—whether human or divine (if ultimately, as the author persuasively counters, the distinction even obtains). The very “liquescence” which, for Pentcheva, is the characteristic feature of both the visual and sonic arrays deployed by the Great Church, as activated by its rhythm of corporate prayer, is also an apt descriptor for the cognitive effect of so many exotic, suggestive terms intermingling throughout her text. The reader needs, therefore, to exercise the very quality for which the Byzantine deacon repeatedly appeals at each service: “Wisdom, let us be attentive!”

A rich assortment of photos—both color and black-and-white—scientific diagrams and musical transcriptions complement the text. One wishes, however, that provision had been made for a companion CD (or set of downloads), by which what Pentcheva’s fourth chapter calls the “aural architecture” of Hagia Sophia, as reconstructed by the world renowned vocal ensemble Cappella Romana (with whom she has closely collaborated) might not only be delineated theoretically, but also experienced to some degree. In addition to that chapter devoted to acoustics, musical concerns also dominate chapter 3 (“Icons of Breath”), and feature both in chapter 5 (“Material Flux: Marble, Water, and Chant”), and elsewhere. The author convincingly portrays the Great Church as a locus of a re-creation modelled after Genesis, wherein the Spirit hovers amidst a seemingly fluid atmosphere, whose aureate contours bespeak an endless “Fiat lux!”

Pentcheva opens Hagia Sophia by introducing the theurgic character of the Great Church, understood by contemporary witnesses as efficaciously communicating divine wisdom to the faithful, through participation (methexis) in the rites transpiring within its walls. In turn, chapter 2 wisely proceeds to examine the actual liturgical rite for the consecration of a temple (known as the kathierōsis), in order to discern the dynamics of spiritual transformation it both envisages and purports to effect. An intriguing investigation of the ambient literary culture—both pagan and Christian—as reflected in the composition of Byzantine hymnody (“Empathy and the Making of Art in Byzantium”) rounds out this book. Preceding this, the penultimate chapter examines literal “mirroring,” namely, the visual reflections produced within the sacral chōros/chōra (“space”), and upon the gilded items used in its service, as well as considering potential musical analogues to these specular processes.

It is with respect to the chapter just mentioned (“The Horizontal Mirror and the Poetics of the Imaginary”), that I must register my sole criticism. On page 153 and following, the author makes an unfortunate error in confusing the Trisagion—occurring in the Byzantine Liturgy before the reading of the Epistle—with the Epinikion Hymn (otherwise known as the Sanctus), sung during the Anaphora (i.e., the Eucharistic Prayer). The text of both hymns includes a threefold ascription of “holy” to God, but otherwise, are completely distinct. In the section entitled “The Sonic Mirroring in the Cheroubikon,” Pentcheva initially refers to what, in context, can be none-other-than the Epinikion Hymn, but calls it the Trisagion; she then draws ostensible musical parallels between the latter and the Cherubic Hymn, by laying out a series of transcriptions drawn from relevant exemplars. The confusion is compounded on page 155, where she misidentifies the Prayer of the Entrance; rather than being uttered during the Great Entrance—that is, when the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar prior to the Anaphora—it is prescribed for the moment of the so-called Little Entrance, preceding the Trisagion.

Such is the vast multi- and inter-disciplinary itinerary of this remarkable volume, however, that minor slips are perhaps to be expected. We remain in the author’s debt—as will, I expect, even generations to come—for redefining what it means to understand any liturgical context in light of the actual performances that make it such. To quote from the title of Margaret Visser’s study of (Old) Rome’s famous Sant' Agnese fuori le Mura: with Hagia Sophia, we have not only been duly introduced to the pride of New Rome, but mystically initiated into its “geometry of love.”


About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian A. Butcher is a Researcher at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, and Sessional Instructor in the Toronto School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
December 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bissera V. Pentcheva is Professor of Art History at Stanford University and the author of Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium and The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium, both also published by Penn State University Press.


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