2021 ICMA Stahl Lecture 1 – Bissera Pentcheva

Eternal Victory: Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Vision of Empire
Bissera Pentcheva, Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University

Online, 8 November 2021, 1700 MT (9 November AEDT, 1100)

Hagia Sophia enthralled its visitors with its luminous and immense interior and reverberant acoustics. The chants composed for this space further amplified the metaphysical effect of wet sound. By using both intercalations of non-semantic vocables and long melismas, these liturgical songs stretched the semantic chains, obfuscating the meaning and pushing sound beyond the register of human language. The divine in Hagia Sophia emerged in the aural and visual – reverberation, glitter, shadow – freed from anthropomorphic form. But this system was challenged after Iconoclasm (843 CE) when monumental figural decoration was introduced in the Great Church (867 CE) and the palatine chapels. This paper explores the change through the concept Eternal Victory. 
Starting in the ninth century but gaining momentum the late tenth century Byzantium reclaimed its territories in the East: capturing Crete, Antioch, and northern Palestine. These victories were celebrated with triumphal processions in Constantinople. New chants were written specifically to be performed in the Great Church and the palatine chapels. Some of the poetry and music was composed by the emperor himself. Analyzing the melodic contour of some of these songs shows how they strategically used the acoustics of the dome to offer a glittering vision of power. And the same time, the figural mosaics in Hagia Sophia and in the palatine chapels gave an anthropomorphic concreteness to the experience of the divine in the reverberant sound. None of these images survives. Yet, a monastery near Thebes (Greece), Hosios Loukas, preserves one of the most extensive Byzantine programs. It channels the Constantinopolitan liturgy and enables us to explore how reverberant sound and figural images operated together to shape a vision of the resurgent empire. 

This lecture is funded by the International Center of Medieval Art as the Stahl Lecture 2021. It is hosted by the University of Arizona School of Architecture and co-sponsored by the UA Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and Mechanics, Department of History, Fred Fox School of Music, School of Art, and the UA Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation Committee.

Advance registration is required HERE.