Social & Political Sciences

Social & Political Sciences Experts

Bissera Pentcheva

Department of Art & Art History
Stanford University
United States of America


Pentcheva’s first book, Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium, Penn State Press 2006 explored through an anthropological lens the structure of the cult of the Virgin in Constantinople and its imperial investment in a framework of monasteries, icons, and icon-processions. My second book The Sensual Icon: Space Ritual and The Senses in Byzantium, Penn State Press 2010 and a series of articles (Art Bulletin, Dec. 2006, Res. Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics, 2009) confronted the phenomenon of animation in Byzantine art establishing the mixed-media relief icon as its focus. These objects display complex surfaces that become alive with the glitter and phenomenal shadows produced by the shifting diurnal light, flickering candle lights, drafts of air, and human breath. This polymorphy of the surfaces constitutes the Byzantine concept of empsychōsis (in-spiriting) or animation (see This medieval liveliness, manifested in changes of appearance, challenges the Renaissance concept of lifelikeness. Rather than a chiaroscuro defined as pictorial modeling as is the case with Renaissance painting, Byzantine art through its mixed-media icons invested in temporal glitter and transient shadows to create a sense of movement in the image and endow it with life. My research on animation has shifted to sound studies focusing on the acoustic manifestation of in-spiriting operating in the liturgy and interior of Byzantium's Great Church. I am publishing two new books in this field: a monograph, Pentcheva, Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space and Spirit in Byzantium (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017) and an edited volume, Aural Architecture in Byzantium: Music, Acoustics and Ritual, ed. Bissera V. Pentcheva (Ashgate, 2017). As part of this research in sound studies, I co-direct the interdisciplinary project “Icons of Sound” ( and have organized and led the Onassis Seminar Aural Architecture: Music, Acoustics, and Ritual in Byzantium (; and the Geballe workshop The Material Imagination: Sound, Space, and Human Consciousness ( My research has been supported by a number of prestigious fellowships: J. S. Guggenheim (2017-2018), American Academy in Rome (2017-2018), Mellon New Directions (2010-2012), and Humboldt (2006-2009).

Research Interest

Architecture, Byzantine Art, Medieval Art

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