by Bissera V. Pentcheva. Pennsylvania State University Press, August 2017. 288 p. ill. ISBN 9780271077253 (h/c), $64.95.
Reviewed March 2018
Widely considered to be the most important monument of Byzantine history and an integral part of the canon of the history and theory of architecture, the Hagia Sophia has no shortage of scholarship covering the extraordinary feats of its engineering and the medieval historical context in which it was constructed. The church turned mosque and now museum has been inspiring an overwhelming sense of awe in its visitors since its construction in 537 CE. Now, author Bissera V. Pentcheva offers a refreshingly new and original perspective by connecting the multi-sensational experiences, both aural and visible, of the Hagia Sophia.
Pentcheva, an art historian at Stanford, outlines the previous research into the reverberative effects of sound and chant in the Hagia Sophia by her colleagues at Stanford, the Technical University of Denmark, UCLA and elsewhere, while providing a new methodology to examine the sacred and spiritual dimensions of the Byzantine space. This methodology alone would appeal to any scholar interested in sound and acoustical engineering, architectural history, medieval studies, or interdisciplinary approaches to art history. Pentcheva includes meticulously researched insights into Greek texts to explore the sensual terms used to describe the Hagia Sophia as a ritual space as well as transcriptions and images of the illuminated manuscripts of Byzantine musical notation.
In the chapter covering aural architecture, Pentcheva guides the reader through the technical aspects of using digital technologies to recreate and perform a live auralization of the Hagia Sophia at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall. Although the spectrograms and graphs of reverberation time lend some visualizations to this text, Pentcheva’s explanations of the effects are much more illuminating. In the chapter “Material Flux,” Pentcheva puts forth a convincing argument that the revetments and surfaces take on a liquid appearance dependent on the lighting, which increases the feeling of the “wetness” within the aural and visual environment of the space. Using images of the rippling surfaces of the Hagia Sophia at certain times of day juxtaposed with images of the Bosphorus, Pentcheva compares these luminescent aesthetics successfully, giving thoughtful contemplation to the transcendental and divine experiences the space inspires in the absence of electric light.
The interdisciplinary methods of exploration and the development of digital technology in the cultural heritage preservation of the Hagia Sophia’s aural and visual environment in Pentcheva’s book are intriguing, well-researched, and rich to a depth previously unexplored. Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium is worth adding to any collection exploring new innovations in archeoacoustical, art historical, and architectural research in Byzantine or medieval periods.