The multisensory experience of worship in Haghia Sofia

Haghia Sophia - the nave from the upper floor I have blogged about my experience of visiting Haghia Sofia in three previous posts (1, 2 and 3) and it’s somewhere I feel particularly strongly attached to.

So it was with great interest that I recently read an extraordinary study of the multisensory experience of worship in Haghia Sofia. The study, by Bissera V Pentcheva of Stanford University, looks at the visual, olfactory and sound world of worship in the Great Church. Her study called Hagia Sophia and Multisensory Aesthetics (Gesta, 2011) is well worth reading and can be found here.

Pentcheva’s proposition is that the use of gold on the mosaics and book match marble cladding of the lower parts are not accidental. Although there is no written record of the intentions of the original architects (Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles), the impact of the space on worshippers is still clear, though impossible for a modern visitor to experience as the museum doesn’t open until 9.00am.

In the 6th century when Haghia Sophia was built the main services took place on Saturday evening (Vespers) and Sunday morning (Divine Liturgy), ie at sunset and sunrise. The effect of the light at these times was to create a shimmering effect (marmarygma) that accentuated the rippling of the marble on the columns and wall cladding and created a sense of moving water. At the same time the light from the gold mosaics was reflected on the face of the worshippers, the scent of incense punctuated the services and the chanting of the choir reverberated through that enormous space.

The cumulative effect of these multisensory factors was to create a sense of the inert material (gold and marble) of the physical structure being animated by the Holy Spirit, almost like one enormous icon.

One of the most interesting aspects of her work is the attempt to recreate the acoustics of Haghia Sofia. The Church is now a museum and it is forbidden to perform or record music in it, so it’s impossible to have a direct experience of how music would sound there. Working with the department of computer and music acoustics at Stanford however, they found a way round this by creating a virtual Haghia Sofia sound space. This was based on modelling the acoustics obtained by popping balloons and recording the results in the nave. The details are contained on a separate website here.

The reverberation is a staggering 10-11 seconds, which means that it is poor for speech and clarity generally. They then enlisted the help of the great Capella Romana to sing Byzantine Chant which was processed through the model and output through speakers. The results are stunning. There is also a short video made by Pentcheva that illustrates the effect of light in Haghia Sofia combined with some of the Byzantine chant in the recreated soundspace:

There are live performances on You Tube by Capella Romana in the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford from 2013 using this technique. Unfortunately they won’t embed in the blog, so here’s the link.

I found it a really imaginative exploration of the interplay between architecture, sensory experience and worship.        

Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

This modern museum, built probably in the past 10 years, contains some interesting artefacts from the Byzantine era. Like many Greek museums it is very well laid out and excellently labelled in Greek and English.

It covers the history of the eastern empire as it affected Thessaloniki through early Christian tombs through it icons, old printed books and every day items, such as this tableware:

Byzantine tableware


One of the most interesting aspects are the early Christian tombs. Initially the tombs are internally decorated with scenes from nature, depicting animals, fish and plants. Unfortunately, the lighting in the museum is too dark for me to get any acceptable pictures of them. But as time goes on they become simpler and then suddenly they start to depict the Cross.

Stele with cross

There are some interesting medieval icons:

Byzantine icon-3

Byzantine icon-2

Byzantine icon

But after the 15th century there is a definite fall off in quality with a heavy Italian influence that just does not look right.

One display focuses on the mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs which set off from this city and was the focus of one of my earlier blogs entries in the Fire and Ice series.

From Georgian drinking song to ‘Long live the Emperor!’


Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos - last Emperor of Byzantium

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos – last Emperor of Byzantium

The leader of our local community choir is very keen on Georgian music and we have over the years performed some astonishing songs from that part of the world. The soundscape of this music is initially a bit alien to western ears: the bass part is often just a drone, the individual parts on their own sound a bit odd and the harmonies frequently clash in a completely unexpected way.

Also it often calls for singing in a calling voice, imagining that you are trying to make yourself heard across fields or on the other side of a valley. That takes a bit of practice as, at least to begin with, it feels like being asked to shout. But there is an energy and vitality to it that completely carries you away.

This week we really enjoyed a piece called Mravaljamieri which we thought was a Georgian drinking song. It was such an exciting and uplifting piece that I started to look for more information about it – and it turns out to have an interesting origin.

Mravaljamieri ‘ means ‘many years’ and is the Georgian version of the Greek Orthodox Polychronion. This is a chant sometimes performed at the end of the Divine Liturgy in honour of a bishop, priest or a member of the laity or just as a celebration of an event.

It reminded me of the time when I used to sing in a Russian Orthodox Church choir and we would sometimes break into this at the end of the service. In Russian it is called the Mnogaya leta.

In the Greek Orthodox Church it is used in a similar way, with the cantor or priest saying the name of the person to be commemorated and then the choir responding by chanting 3 times. It originated in Byzantium when the Polychronion was used as a chant to greet the Byzantine Emperor when he entered Haghia Sofia through the Imperial Doors and at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

In fact it is an adaptation of the Latin acclamation Ad multos annos (Many Years) used by the people to acclaim the Roman Emperor. It is remarkable that through singing and celebration we have this living link with such a remote past.