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North Porch of Aghia Sophia in Trabazon/Trebizond

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 26 Nov 2017, 15:32

A Space for Presence: The fresco in the North Porch of Aghia Sophia in Trabazon/Trebizond

© Steve Bamlett: Presentation Proposal

North Porch (external photograph)

I aim to apply Belting’s[1] hypothesis about the ‘nature of the image before the era of Art’ to an unusual example of Trebizond Empire Byzantium.

Porches are uncommon in mainstream Byzantine architecture, whilst the frescoes within North Porch are thoroughly Byzantine. A notion of spatializing embodied presence is proposed to explain how Byzantine imagery translates novel architectural space into meaning, in which narrative and symbol-offered–to–interpretation become phenomenal embodied presences

Fresco North Porch - sketch

Focusing on the central section of the fresco (Jacob wrestling the Angel[2]), I argue that Eastmond’s[3] iconographical reading is less significant than embodied intra-male visceral action: ‘He touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of his thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him’[4]. The Greek term (ή παλαίστρα) used to describe the wrestling training-ground initiates our struggle with meanings. Image and text co-create presence across space. 

The Word is implicated in Byzantine images throughout Aghia Sophia. In this fresco, the image denotes a place of ‘faces’ rather than ‘masks’,  a place Jacob names merely because it marks embodied (‘face to face’[5]) encounters.

247 words


Steve Bamlett

Born in West Yorkshire, Steve gained first class honours in English Literature at University College London in 1976, studying under Professor Frank Kermode. After postgraduate study at Kings Cambridge and Leicester University in Victorian Poetry, he started his career as an academic in Higher Education, teaching English Language and Literature in Roehampton in London (Now Roehampton University). However, moving to Durham with his partner in 1990, he explored my options through taking Open University courses, initially in social care and gained First Class Honours in Psychology. He still sees himself as a lifelong learner rather than a tutor though. 


After qualifying as a social worker by MA at Durham University, he worked as a social worker and primary care mental health worker in the statutory and voluntary sector, latterly with people who give care for a relative or friend in the community. In 2004 he returned to teaching at Teesside University as Subject Leader, teaching Social Work relating to the understanding and work with people undergoing difficult life-transitions. Now 63, he has taken early retirement but returned to teaching with the Open University in 2014 as an Associate Lecturer in course in Psychology and the psychobiology of Mental Health. He also still acts as a peer reviewer for The British Journal of Social Work. 

He continue his own study with the Open University, gaining a PG Diploma in Humanities (Philosophy and Classical Greek Drama) and a MA in Open & Online Education. He is now in his first year of a MA in Art History with the OU. He has a passion for the variations of historical ‘Greek’ culture. He has an interest in queer perspectives on cultural history.


[1] Belting, H. (1994) trans Jephcott, E. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art Chicago, The University of Chicago Press

[2] Plate VIII in Talbot Rice, D. (Ed.) (1968) The Church of Haghia Sophia At Trebizond Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

[3] Eastmond, A. (2004) Art and Identity in Thirteenth-Century Byzantium: Hagia Sophia and the Empire of Trebizond London, Ashgate.

[4] Genesis 32:25

[5] Genesis 32:30

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Unfortunately for me, this proposal for a 20 minute paper was turned down by the Oxford Byzantine Society. I tend to think theyt may have though it a bit 'gay'!

I can't though stop reading however, so this example will become one on my examples of an icon for TMA02 - together with another example from an illumination (one that is more nearly reflected in a Gothic version in The Winchester Psalter).

As I read, I find out more and more about the Greek version of Jacob (partly transmitted through the Septuagint Greek Old Testeament (LXX) and The Jewish Alexandrian philosopher, Philo - in which Jacon becomes an athlete and icon of the 'strengthening' of vision before and of God based in the Classical Greek gymnasium of the mind. 

These get echoed in the Greek patriarchal writers equated with early Byzantium.See Hayward (2005)* Eastmond argues that the diaspora of byzantine Courts after 1204 (including Nicaea), returned to ideological roots that united Greek experience to that of the Classical past, even in neglected Trapezuntine forms. The latter however also returned to eastern and even iconoclastic near Islamic patterns to marry with them.

* Hayward, C.T. R. (2005) Interpretations oif the Name israel in Ancient Judaism & some Early Christian Writings: From Victorious Athlete to Heavenly Champion Oxford, Oxford University Press

Perhaps one of the most forbidding titles to have come out of Durham University!!! But a BEAUTIFUL book!

Sad me!