© Lisa DeNeffe


Bissera Pentcheva, Ph.D.

Professor of Art History

Stanford University

Born in 1972 in Sofia
Studied Art History at Dartmouth College and Medieval and Byzantine Art and Architecture at Harvard University


Animation in Medieval Art

Since the Renaissance, Western culture has promoted naturalism and the ability of the painter or sculptor to imitate nature and produce a lifelike image. By contrast, medieval culture across the Christian-Islamic divide privileged liveliness, stemming from the changing appearance of materials like gold, enamel, and gems. The material flux was produced by ambient conditions such as the movement of diurnal light and shadows across the complex surfaces, or the flicker of candles stirred by a breeze or human breath. By employing digital technology along with the traditional textual research, this study explores the phenomenon of animation in medieval art.
We identify image with the mimetic representation that can be sculptural or painted. Yet, medieval culture surprises us with an alternative definition of the image as performance, more specifically as a channeling of breath, whereby the faithful can recuperate and return, albeit fleetingly, to the state of being an image of God or imago Dei. The written sources attribute the eruption of this imago Dei to prayer and chant. Singing is a process in which the Spirit enters human bodies and is exhaled as sonic energy. Both the performer and the audience consume some of this energy and thus become implicated in the production of the imago Dei.
The recognition of this non-representational, performative icon demands that we approach medieval art as installation and view its architecture, music, liturgical furnishing, and ritual as a choreographed production of metaphysical presence. I approach this expanded field of what constitutes an image through a series of case studies: the Exultet liturgy celebrated on Easter vigil in Southern Italy; the chanted office of the Byzantine cathedral rite; and the theology and performance of the Eucharist, which grapples with the tension between a figural mise-en-scène and a theology maintaining that the gifts are dissemblant from Christ in their figural form, but partake substantially in his body and blood.
My methodology is informed by phenomenology and aesthetics. In the past, phenomenology has been viewed as an approach that negates hermeneutics and fails to produce a contextual, historical exploration. My research demonstrates an alternative, in which phenomenology and hermeneutics engage in a productive dialogue. Attention to the changing appearances of objects, architectural spaces, and the participants in the ritual highlights the existence of protean hermeneutics, in which certain meanings emerge at particular moments of the ritual only to sink back from consciousness as other phenomena stir the semantics into new directions.

Recommended Reading

Pentcheva, Bissera. Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017. http://hagiasophia.stanford.edu.
-. The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Paperback 2013. www.thesensualicon.com.
-. Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. Paperback 2014.

Publications from the Fellows' Library

Pentcheva, Bissera ( London, 2018)
Aural architecture in Byzantium : music, acoustics, and ritual An Ashgate book

Pentcheva, Bissera ( University Park, Pennsylvania, 2017)
Hagia Sophia : sound, space, and spirit in Byzantium

Pentcheva, Bissera ( 2011)
Hagia Sophia and multisensory aesthetics

Pentcheva, Bissera ( University Park, Penn., 2010)
The sensual icon : space, ritual, and the senses in Byzantium

Pentcheva, Bissera ( 2006)
The performative icon

Pentcheva, Bissera ( University Park, Pa., 2006)
Icons and power : the Mother of God in Byzantium

Tuesday Colloquium01/15/19