Icons of Sound
Aesthetics and Acoustics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
A collaboration between Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and Department of Art & Art History
This film was made with the kind permission of the AyaSofya Müzesi

© Bissera V. Pentcheva

Natural light moving across the surfaces of marble and gold causes glitter that in turn simulates the perceptual memory of the quivering sea. The iterative marmar offers the linguistic basis of this experience: in Greek marmaron is marble; Marmara is the name of the sea washing at the southern harbors of Constantinople and surrounding the marble quarries on the island of Proconnesus; marmairo and marmarysso is “to flash,” “to sparkle;” and marmarygma is shimmer.

Marmarygma arises in Hagia Sophia at sunrise and sunset at the time when originally the morning and evening liturgies unfolded. Most visitors to the museum today are denied this experience because they see the interior in the harsh light of the midday sun or electricity. Similarly, the relatively short duration of their stay in the space prevents them from observing most of the subtle changes of light playing across the marble and gold.

For this reason, we made a short video that explores Hagia Sophia’s aesthetic of transience. We tied this optical dimension to the acoustic, recording the sounds of doves and wind in the early morning and crowds at noon, and we enriched the aural experience with a Byzantine chant recorded at Stanford’s CCRMA but digitally imprinted with the reverberant acoustics of Hagia Sophia.

The film traces in the course of a day how natural light animates inert matter endowing it with movement. It also integrates passages from the ekphrasis of Paul the Silentiary, which was originally performed for an elite audience in the imperial and patriarchal palaces for the re-inauguration of Hagia Sophia in 562. This poetry shows how the medieval audience was trained to perceive the fleeting appearances on the surfaces of marble and gold as manifestations of the descent of the Holy Spirit in matter, transforming the inert into an animate empsychos eikon (in-spirited icon):

The peak of Proconnesus soothingly spreading over the entire pavement,
has gladly given its back to the life-giving ruler [Christ/the emperor],
the radiance of the Bosporos softly ruffling
transmutes from the deepest darkness of swollen waters to the soft whiteness of radiant metal.
The ceiling encompasses gold-inlaid tesserae,
whose pouring down in glittering (marmairousa)
gold-streaming ray 
irresistibly bounces off the faces of the faithful (tr. Bissera V. Pentcheva)
πᾶν δὲ πέδον στορέσασα Προκοννήσοιο κολώνη
ἀσπασίως ὑπέθηκε βιαρκέϊ νῶτον ἀνάσσηι·
ἠρέμα δὲ φρίσσουσα διέπρεπε Βοσπορὶς αἴγλη
ἀκροκελαινιόωντος ἐπ’ ἀργεννοῖο μετάλλου.
Χρυσεοκολλήτους δὲ τέγος ψηφῖδας ἐέργει,
ὧν ἄπο μαρμαίρουσα χύδην χρυσόρρυτος ἀκτὶς
ἀνδρομέοις ἄτλητος ἐπεσκίρτησε προσώποις,

Paul the Silentiary, Descriptio Sanctae Sophiae, vv. 664–70.

© Bissera V. Pentcheva