Sunday, February 8, 2015

Revisiting the chair in history

A couple weeks ago I began re-reading an old book of mine about the "history of English furniture" (which, as usual, begins with the end of the 15th century) by Percy MacQuoid. In book two, The Age of Walnut, chapter IV he commences with the topic of stools in the context of both English and French societies during "the reign of Louis XIV". He states; "Even in ordinary households, (in the context of this book, that would refer to the bourgeois) the use of a chair was by no means yet extended to the younger members of a family". I am constantly coming across publications which express the same basic sentiment in one way or another, but since I have Mr MacQuiod's book here in front of me, I will quote a specific statement from him again. This is from page 29 of book one, The Age of Oak and here he is speaking of an even earlier period. "The number of chairs used throughout the fifteenth and greater part of the sixteenth centuries cannot have been many; settles, benches, stools, and the tops of chests were the most ordinary form of seat, and that the occupation of a chair conferred a considerable amount of authority and caste, is certain. In addition to the personal chairs in a room, it is probable that one or two others were introduced for important guests." Perhaps to a large extent this was true, but there is quite a bit of evidence to bring the notion of that being an empirical truth into serious doubt.

I actually began a paper on this topic several years ago, but it seems that a USB storage device is a lot less reliable than a parchment manuscript, thus my work has apparently become "irretrievable". I do still have most of the images I collected for that paper and wish to make a brief summary of some of my findings in this installment of the blog. You may be surprised at what we uncover!

I have been interested in history and furniture since my teens and was 'brought up' so to speak on the notion that chairs were invented about the end of the middle ages and that until the 18th century few people possessed them and they were always reserved for the most important people of a household, Imagine, then, my surprise when some 20 odd years ago I bought a book on the works of Rogier van der Weyden and discovered this drawing.
Scupstoel, From Masters of  Netherlandish Art
Rogier van der Weyden
2nd quarter 15th c
This was an eye opening revelation because, as you can clearly see here, right in the midst of the heap of three and four legged stools and folding 'X' chairs is a very ordinary looking high backed chair with a form quite similar to that of a "Shaker design", save for the lack of horizontal slats in the back.

From this time I began examining medieval paintings in earnest, looking for clues to furniture designs and found other renderings of chairs as well. In fact, there are so many examples in manuscripts, sculptures and paintings, as well as a few still existing actual pieces, that we can find at least one image of a chair from every century since the 9th. In this article it would be impossible to go into all the types and styles of chairs which came and went during the thousand years of history which we call medieval, nor could we try to sort out the distinctions (if any can actually be drawn from the surviving evidence) of 'chair' versus 'throne' but for the purpose of this argument we will be focusing on unadorned, simple, four legged, high backed chairs of a form than any modern person will readily recognize as such.

As with most types of furniture, we can find the origins of our humble chair form in Egyptian,Greek, and Roman culture; they all apparently had versions of this type of seating, The earliest examples I have found, so far, from the middle ages, are these chairs from an illuminated page in the Bible of Charles the Bald dating from about 845. There are earlier artworks, including various depictions from the 6th and 7th century Insular Gospel evangelist illustrations and Spanish Beatus works, which show chairs of this form, but since these persons are to be considered contextually of the highest esteem, we can not consider their furnishings to be of the 'ordinary' sort. What I am looking for are examples of more important people not in chairs, whilst in the same scene, those of lesser social stature are seated in them; a tall order perhaps, but such examples do exist.
Upper section of an illumination depicting King
David with guards and musicians in a 'Roman Revival'
style. BNF lat 1 fol 215v
In this illustration, King David plays his harp whilst dancing between two of his body guards; four other members of his 'band' (only two are shown here) sit in simple chairs playing their respective instruments. Quite obviously, none of them are of a higher social stature than the king himself. It is also worth noting that these chairs are not large or ornate and therefore should certainly not be construed as "thrones".

As we work our way through the manuscripts from the 9th to the 13th century, we find an abundance of chairs with this same basic shape, The detail of the ornament and construction varies with the times, and the line between 'chair' and 'throne' from our point of view is quite often blurred. As we come to the 12th century, we  find a few actual remaining examples of this form of chair; doubtless they have survived because they have an association with some important historical figure. These existing chairs, then, are not necessarily of the 'common' sort, but that is not to say that simpler forms did not exist, even though some of these so called "bishop's chairs" seem quite simple to our eyes. Many of the manuscripts depict much more ornate examples than those that do survive, clouding the waters of distinction between ordinary and importance further. It is quite probable that what was considered common and rudimentary in a more urban setting was a luxury item for someone in a less materially advanced society such as that of a small town in medieval Sweden. Another point to note is that in later centuries, when we are able to observe multiple levels of refinement in the same basic form, we can see that one could have a very basic, or an highly ornamented version, with the same overall shape. After the 13th century, when there are enough illustrations to give us a wider range of decorative options within a given form, we see this same concept already in effect.
So-called "Bishop's Throne"  from
Husaby Kyrka (church), Sweden 12thc
As previously mentioned, the idea for this study is to question the conventional notion that a chair was always reserved for the most important person in the room. No better illustration can be found to bring that point home than this one from a 12th century German bible in the Egerton Collection of the British Library.
The Last Supper BL Egerton
MS 809 fol 17r
In this scene we find the apostles seated around the table; Judas is depicted occupying a chair, of a very similar design to that of the previous example, on the opposite side of the table away from this companions; this was a convention for illustrating disfavour of him in the eyes of christian culture. The convention of depicting Judas without the halo seems to not yet have occurred to the artist, but he does show a raven, which was a medieval symbol of death and evil, entering the mouth of this ill fated disciple. This scene depicts the moment when Iscariot is preparing to embark on his infamous mission of betrayal. Not exactly a first rate guest to depict in a chair if they are only reserved for the most important.

When we start finding answers, inevitably, we only create more questions; this search for chairs has raised many. Often times it is difficult from the surviving artwork to determine with any certainty the intent of the artist or the implications of the things he depicts in the context of societal norms. It is also impossible to say why any given artist chose to either place an object in a painting, or to leave it out.

 No one knows how many paintings Giotto produced, but there are a fair number of them surviving, mostly in the form of Frescoes. On examining all of the works of his I could find, I noticed only one work in which he portrays an ordinary sort of chair. Why did he not use it more often? or perhaps, why did he use it at all?
Christ washing Peter's feet
Giotto di Bondone c1304

In this painting, depicting an event at the beginning of the same evening as that of our last example, we find Christ kneeling at a basin in the act of attempting to wash Peter's feet, as he sits in a chair. Is the chair here depicted to show the eventual importance of Peter as the founder of the church? One must realize that each of the other disciples would also have their turn in the same chair if we are to think of this as a 'snap-shot' scene. We must realise, however, medieval illustrations are not constructed with our modern sense of illustration in mind, and it is possible that this work contains some deep theological or sociological implication, or it could simply be a matter of the artist's taste and whim.

It should come as no surprise that taste could effect what an artist produced. Taste has always been a driving factor in society, and medieval persons were no different than their modern counterparts in this matter. Just a quick couple of anecdotes to illustrate matters of taste; one can read in the biography of St Eligius that he was fond of adding all sorts of ornaments and jewels to his garments, but we read from the biography of Charlemagne, some 100 odd years later, insisting on simple clothing "not in the Roman style of dress", which, in his time, would have been what we term Byzantine. People have likes and dislikes, and some things interest them more than others, these factors could also have an impact on the elements which an artist decided to put into his work. There is no easier way to see the individuality of an artist's input than to compare many works depicting the same subject. No more widely illustrated subject exists from the medieval period than that of The Annunciation,
Annunciation; Cima da Conegliano
There were thousands of variations of this theme produced in which the Virgin is depicted sitting or kneeling at a desk, a lectern, a cabinet, a bench, or sometimes at no piece of furniture at all. She can be a commoner, rich noblewoman, or a Queen, and the event has been depicted in a bedroom, a vestibule, a courtyard or even in a church. Doubtless some of these elements in certain paintings had ulterior implications, but in some cases, it is my opinion, that it was nothing more than taste, and/or economy on the part of the artist.

 One of the most beautiful paintings from the end of the medieval period is in the National Gallery in London; it is an annunciation scene by Carlo Crivelli. The colours and the architecture of the work are simply exquisite. Through an open window, the Virgin is depicted as a rich noblewoman in a bedroom suite filled with luxurious fabrics, furniture, and domestic objects. The second floor of the opulently decorated house looms over her with its fluted columns and carved capitals, rich Persian carpets drape over the balusters, further emphasising the wealth and status of its occupants. Crivelli did several other versions of this scene and depending on the scale of the scene he was painting, her surroundings tend toward less ornate. A tiny scene in the predella of one of his altarpieces simply shows Mary kneeling before a four sided cabinet of unfinished nailed planks.

Perhaps the use of a chair partially fell to the matter of the sitter simply not wishing to use such a piece of furniture for a said function. Notice in the above illustrated work that no one occupies the chair. It would appear that Mary sits on a bench whilst the chair stands to the side unused. there are several other versions of this scene, by various artists, which also portray an empty chair so this is not an exceptional occurrence. In the aforementioned history of furniture, there is quoted a letter from some two hundred years after the end of the middle ages in which the writer is recalling an incident when the king and his courtiers sat on the floor "because there were no chairs" but earlier, the writer mentioned them all having consumed a dinner but there was no mention of a lack of chairs in the dining hall. It is possible that the writer was actually saying that there were not enough chairs for everyone in the room they were occupying at that moment, so no one used them. In another instance, again from the same book, MacQuiod cites another source from the beginning of the 17th century in which King James I "orders" his chair removed and a bench brought in "like that of all the others seated at the table" Is it possible that people simply liked sitting on benches?

In an early 15th century French miniature Christine de Pizan is depicted presenting her book to the Queen, several of the Queen's ladies in waiting are also present; the scene is set in a bedroom, which was a very normal place to have such a gathering at this time. All the women are either seated on benches, or possibly the cushions are directly on the floor for some of them; the queen sits on a day-bed, which does show some seating hierarchy, but notice that at the back of the room, against the wall, is a chair. This is not the sort of chair we are referring to in our discussion here, but it is a chair, and of a type which apparently could be found in the late medieval bedroom of anyone from the king to the yeomen and burghers. (Many of this type of chair can still be found surviving to this day.)
Christine de Pizan presents her book
c1410 (taken from the web)
No one uses the chair; is this because the arrangement would be too formal were the queen to be seated in it, or does she, like the recently mentioned king, just wish not to use it? As I said, the more answers we get, the more questions we raise. It is also worth pointing out, as I have before, that these illustrations are not "snap shots" and the chair may have been placed there by the artist, simply because it was part of the usual furnishings of a bedroom.

Coming back to our 'ordinary chairs', we find them depicted most often with round legs until the 14th century, after which time they are often (but not always) depicted with squared timbers as in the following interesting illustration. This is an Italian miniature which comes from a treatise on medicine, so it would seem that the two figures in the scene are engaged in the production of something for the apothecary shop. This work is notable for several reasons, not least of which is that it depicts a negro woman who could just as easily have come from Tom Sawyer as from the 15th century. She sits on a chair stirring a pot, whilst the man straddles a bench pounding something in a mortar. The building is quite simple, with unfinished walls and a straw thatched roof; the occupants are quite obviously not well-to-do, yet here sits the woman in a chair very much like our first example and the one from the annunciation; the man occupies a bench.
BNF lat 7939 fol 48r
At the beginning of this article I mentioned the passage from MacQuoid's book in which he was specifically saying that younger people were not permitted to sit in chairs. I took special issue with this statement because I happen to know of at least a few 15th century paintings that show children seated in chairs.

Predella scene; Giovanni Bellini, from the
San Vincenzo-Ferreri Altarpiece
In the above work, an entire crowd is depicted milling about as they listen to an out-of-doors sermon, we see people sitting on benches, the ground, a chest (so yes, people did use chests to sit on if nothing else was conveniently to hand) and there are also depicted, two chairs. Only one person is actually sitting in one, and he is a child. The second chair is being carried by a man, but it is quite obvious, by its proportion, that it too, is intended for a young person. let me repeat; there are two chairs in the entire scene, and both of them are for children.

 Hieronymus Bosch, in his Seven Deadly Sins, of c1501 depicts in the scene of Gluttony, a man seated in a chair similar to these others and a child with his soiled trousers half undone seemingly having just vacated a small chair fit with a pot. It would seem that children had chairs even if Mr Mac Quoid and many others, repeating after him, were completely unaware of the fact. 

How common were chairs? we have no idea, Did people prefer to use benches and stools to chairs? We have no clear answer for that either. Short of coming up with a time machine and going back with a video camera, there will be no way to positively portray most aspects of life and society during the Middle Ages, therefore, few things can be proven with certainty. We have, however, demonstrated that regardless of the prevalence of ordinary chairs, they did exist, and, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, it was not always the most important person who sat in them. The more research we do on the Middle Ages, the less "dark" they inevitably become. 


Here are a couple more pictures which I had intended to use, but wanted to shorten the article so they are not included in the main text.
The Holly Family, from the Hours of Catherine
of Cleves. c1440 Morgan Library
In this miniature, Mary nurses the infant Christ in a very homely scene set in a Flemish burgher's interior. (18 years ago I constructed a cabinet inspired by this illustration)
Scenes of the life of St Nicolas, Gentile da Fabriano
c1425 (sourced from the web)
In this scene we find almost the exact same chair as the previous example. Notice that both of these are of even lighter construction than the other examples used in this article, Also note that one illustration is from the Netherlands, the other from Italy, showing a wide distribution of such form.

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