Bissera V. Pentcheva: Icons of Sound: Hagia Sophia and the Descent of Grace

Vortrag / Conferenza

The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters, Psalm 23 (24): 1-2.

Sung as the entry to the church, these verses of Psalm 23 shaped the religious experience of the faithful as they crossed the threshold leaving nature behind - the peristyle garden with its fountains and vegetation - and stepped into the cheiropoietos (manmade) interior of the church. In the sixth-century Hagia Sophia the floors of dove-white Proconnesian marble, the walls covered in book-matched stone slabs, and the arches, domes, and semi-domes dressed in glittering glass mosaic invited the faithful to feel like a spirit gliding on the surface of water. This sensation of hovering over the open seas evoked a series of textual precedents: Genesis with the scene of Creation when the spirit hovered over the primordial ocean; the Gospels with the story of Peter walking on water; and finally the vision in Apocalypse of the sea of glass.

Charis marked the presence of the Holy Spirit in matter. This chiastic entwining of human and divine became sentient in the glitter of gold, the perfume and smoke released by burning incense, and the acoustics of domes and reflective marble surfaces. When human chanting and prayer emptied in the domed interiors of Hagia Sophia, the sound was magnificently amplified through the echoes reverberating in the arches and cupolas. The empnous body of the church thus emerged as a giant megaphone transforming human breath into divine pneuma, thus reinforcing the experience of a Spirit hovering over a luminous surface. This paper will explore the visual, olfactory, and acoustic manifestation of the descent of pneuma as charis in the sixth-century space and liturgy of Hagia Sophia.

Bissera Pentcheva joined the faculty at Stanford in 2003 after teaching as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. She received her Ph.D from Harvard in 2001 with a dissertation on the cult of the Virgin in Byzantium. She has held a number of prestigious fellowships: Dumbarton Oaks Junior Fellowship, Onassis Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, and Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship.

Her first book, "Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium" (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), explores the origins, transformation, and imperial significance of the cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium. Her new book "Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium" (Penn State Press, 2010) explores Byzantine tactile visuality and the sensory experience of icons.

She has also given invited talks on this topic at Johns Hopkins University; Smith College; University of Washington; Loyola Marymount University; University of California at Santa Barbara; University of Volos, Greece; Ludwig Maximillians Universität, Munich; Kunsthistotrisches Institut in Florenz - Max-Planck-Institut; and Institut für Byzantinistik, Österreichische Universität Wien.

Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz - Max-Planck-Institut
Konferenzsaal / Sala conferenze
Via Giuseppe Giusti 38
50121 Florenz
Dr. habil. Nicola Suthor  
Telefon:+39 055 24911-94

This event will be documented photographically and/or recorded on video. Please let us know if you do not agree with the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz using images in which you might be recognizable for event documentation and public relation purposes (e.g. social media).


Our Newsletter provides you with free information on events, tenders, exhibitions and recent publications from the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz.

If you would like to receive our newsletter, please enter your name and e-mail address:

*required field

Notes on the content of the newsletter and transit procedures

This letter is sent via MailChimp, where your e-mail address and name will be saved for sending the newsletter.

Once you have completed the form, you will receive a "Double-Opt-In-E-Mail," in which you are asked to confirm your registration. You can cancel your subscription to the Newsletter at any time ("Opt-out"). You will find an unsubscribe link in every Newsletter and in the Double-Opt-in-E-Mail.

You will receive detailed information about transit procedures and your withdrawal options in our privacy policy.