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Bissera Pentcheva

Bissera Pentcheva

Associate Professor of Art & Art History
Associate Professor of Classics, by courtesy

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.

Recently my research on animation has shifted to sound studies focusing on the acoustic manifestation of in-spiriting operating in the liturgy and interior of Hagia Sophia (Gesta, August 2011).  This work has led me to recognize the Byzantine concept of the “perfomative” icon functioning beyond representation and engendered by chant in the body of the faithful standing in the resonant chamber of the Great Church.  In ushering the Byzantine “performative icon in the expanded field,” my art historical research has branched into the study of liturgy, Byzantine musicology, and architectural history (Performance Research International 19.3, 2014). 

As part of my research investment in sound studies, I direct three collaborative projects: “Icons of Sound” (; the Onassis Seminar Aural Architecture: Music, Acoustics, and Ritual in Byzantium(; and the Geballe workshop The Material Imagination: Sound, Space, and Human Consciousness(

Select Articles:

“The Performative Icon, The Art Bulletin 88/4 (2006): 631-55

"Moving Eyes: Surface and Shadow in the Byzantine Mixed-Media Relief Icon," Res. Anthropology and Aesthetics 53 (2009): 223-34

“Hagia Sophia and Multisensory Aesthetics,” Gesta 50/2 (2011): 93–111

“Performing the Sacred in Byzantium: Image, Breath, and Sound,” PRI Performance Research International 19/3 (2014): 120–28