Bissera Pentcheva

Bissera Pentcheva

Professor of Medieval Art
Professor of Classics by courtesy
Ph.D Harvard University
B.A. Dartmouth College

Pentcheva's innovative work in acoustics, art, and music has redefined the field of Byzantine architecture. Her collaborative project, Icons of Sound (2008-2017) co-directed with Jonathan Abel (Stanford's Center for Computer Research and Acoustics) has opened a new paradigm for the use of digital technology in humanities research. Icons of Sound aims to re-animate the spaces of the past and to restore the lost voice of Hagia Sophia. To date we have produced two concerts at Stanford's Bing Hall (2013, 2016) featuring Byzantine chant performed by Cappella Romana and imprinted live (auralized) with the acoustics of the Great Church. Pentcheva has just published a monograph exploring the relationship between the singing human voice and the golden-clad, resonant interior of Hagia Sophia and how the synergy between the two produced intensely moving spiritual experience, Pentcheva, Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space and Spirit in Byzantium (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017)


As an extension of Icons of Sound, Pentcheva has organized and led the Onassis Seminar  Aural Architecture: Music, Acoustics, and Ritual in Byzantium (, 2013-2014.  The results are now published in the edited volume,  Aural Architecture in Byzantium: Music, Acoustics and Ritual, ed. Bissera V. Pentcheva (Ashgate, 2017).


Pentcheva's interest in acoustics has also inspired her to establish the interdisciplinary the Geballe workshop on sound studies at Stanford,  The Material Imagination: Sound, Space, and Human Consciousness, 2013-2017.


Pentcheva's earlier work includes the book, Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium, Penn State Press 2006, which received the Nicholas Brown Prize from the Medieval Academy of America in 2010. It 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. 

Her other 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, and Codex Aquilarensis 2016) 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.


Pentcheva's research has been supported by a number of prestigious fellowships:  Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2018-2019), J. S. Guggenheim (2017-2018), American Academy in Rome (2017-2018), Mellon New Directions (2010-2012), Humboldt (2006-2009) and a Dumbarton Oaks Junior Fellowship (2000-2001).


Selected Articles:

with Jonathan Abel, Icons of Sound: Auralizing the Lost Voice of Hagia Sophia, Speculum 2017 online publication

“Glittering Eyes: Animation in the Byzantine Eikōn and the Western Imago,” Codex Aqvilarensis 32 (2016): 209–26.

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

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

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

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

Research Interest(s)
Research Subfields
Classical Art
McMurtry 340
Office Hours
Tuesday, 3:00-5:30, Please, use link to signup sheet in the faculty art & art history page