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.        

1 thought on “The multisensory experience of worship in Haghia Sofia

  1. Pingback: Reproducing the sound of worship in Haghia Sophia | Byzantine Blog

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