Saturday, April 4, 2015

The (Long and complex) Medieval History of the Chair - part 1; Type-forms

There has been a lot written and discussed, concerning the chair, in the context of history and society. These discussions have often been influenced by our modern concepts of history and craftsmanship, they have also been clouded by an overlap of terms for different types of seating furniture. One of the most common misnomers on the subject, is the word "throne", which people often associate with large, elaborate, and ornate chairs; another is "stool" which is usually thought of as a simple or primitive object. This posting will address the basic types of chairs found in the artwork, (and surviving examples) of the Middle Ages; future posts will discuss the development and ornamentation these types of seating objects have taken.

To begin with, lets establish some basics of definition, utilising terms as we understand them today, then explain how those might have differed in various times in history. As was already mentioned, the biggest sticking point, in the discussion of chairs, is what constitutes a 'chair' as opposed to a 'throne'. The simple answer, based on the Oxford Dictionary and Wikipedia, is that a throne is a chair which is used in the context of a ceremony or official function. Adopting this definition, a three legged 'cricket stool' would be a throne, if a king or pope were sitting on it, in an act of office. By contrast, a massive carved and gilt ivory chair in a farmers house, (were he to, somehow, acquire such) would still just be a large and elaborate 'chair'. We can thus conclude that a throne is not a form of furniture, but any type of chair, with a specific function.

Whenever histories of medieval western furniture are discussed, it is helpful to introduce the topic with the origins of those objects, when their origins fall outside of the Middle Ages. This is most definitely the case with chairs, so we should have a quick check on what was used in antiquity, (meaning before the medieval period). In the case of chairs, I think it would be almost impossible to say, with any kind of empirical certainty, when they first appeared. There are, in the Athens Archaeological Museum, several marble sculptures of musicians, sitting in chairs, playing harp type instruments; these sculptures are thought to be nearly 5000 years old, so obviously chairs are even older than that.

Harp player of Keros c2700 BC
(linked direct from website)

If we jump to the Roman world, which is much closer to the time of our discussion, we find several bronze chairs and other types of seating furniture from Pompeii. Many extant depictions of various types of chairs in Roman artwork, as well as a couple charred remains of actual pieces, can be found in various museums around the world. We will use these examples to begin the study of how chairs did, and did not, change through the progression of the Middle Ages.

The Goddess Fortuna in the Capitoline Museum
(linked direct from website)

The above example is a marble relief depicting a chair made of bronze, several actual examples of which have been recovered from archaeological sites of the Roman world. This is a very basic form, as we know it today, of a chair. The fact that this chair is represented as being made of metal, as opposed to wood, is immaterial. There seems to have been a large quantity of metal furniture made throughout the Roman and medieval periods, and any serious discussion of medieval furniture must include non wooded furniture as well. In the museums we find many Roman examples of bronze chairs, and at least three (the "Dagobert Chair" from the 7th century, the 11th century "Kaiserstuhl" from Gosslar, and a remarkably elaborate 14th century gold and enameled Gothic style chair in Barcelona) from the Middle Ages. There also exists, in manuscript illustrations, several depictions of chairs which clearly indicate metal furniture. Even if these are the only three which I have mentioned, and there are not many others still in existence, they speak forcefully of a tradition of metal-fabricated furniture, which must have continued throughout the Middle Ages, as any type of industry needs continuous business in order to survive. In addition to chairs made of metal, there was also an ongoing practice of making objects of wood, and then covering them in gold or other metal foils, and further enhancing them with gems, crystals, and enamel.

The form which we associate today with the term 'chair', is that of one having four legs, and a back; if the front legs extend above the front of the seat and are connected by a cross member to the back, we term that an "armchair". An elaborate version of such a chair is what we usually associate with a "throne", so this will be our first form of chair; we will call it a "throne chair", though, as already stated, a throne indicates a function of a chair, not its form. When I discuss this form in greater detail, we will examine variations to this basic shape, but for now, here is one example of such a chair.

Shrine of Sainte Foy, Conques Abbey
originally 9th, century but with 10th
and 11th century alterations

This happens to be another example of a metal chair, but a piece of furniture of such form could just as easily have been made of wood or even stone, then covered with foil and other ornaments. In fact, the "Throne of Charlemagne" in Aachen, is very similar in form to this, and it would be ludicrous, given the opulence of other surviving objects associated with him, to believe that, as originally fashioned, it would not have also been ornamented in a similar manner.

As I am terming this type of chair a 'throne chair' I will make another category of objects of similar form, but less ornate in decoration, and call it a "common chair". Because we are discussing form, not function, we will find many pictures of kings, bishops, and other persons of importance, sitting in such chairs, these are, none the less, 'common chairs' in form. In the Middle Ages, these chairs usually were constructed with turned upright members, and often had turned horizontal elements as well. the complications begin to arise when we find such chairs ornamented and elaborated on, to the point of becoming 'throne chairs'; many examples of which can be found in medieval artwork. With these first two types of chair, it is often difficult to decide where to draw a line of distinction.

Isaac sends his son to hunt, in this detail from folio 25r 
of the 6th century Ashburnham Pentateuch
BNF Nouv. acq. lat 2334

In this illustration, Isaac is dispatching his son Esau on his infamous hunting expedition, as his wife, Rebecca, stands behind him; very conveniently, the artist has identified the figures in this picture. Isaac sits in a turned armchair with finials on all four uprights, but, since the back is directly in line with two of the columns, it is difficult to tell where the finials end and the columns begin. (This sort of problem was what later medieval artists attempted to avoid, as was discussed in last weeks posting.) In addition, but very difficult to discern, Esau is either siting on, or standing in front of, another turned chair or stool; one leg of which is green, the other lavender, both legs of which have splayed feet.

The study of this Pentateuch is most rewarding for anyone interested in early medieval furniture, as the illustrations are full of all sorts of examples of such. Since this book was produced at the beginning of the Middle Ages, (its exact date is disputed, as either late 6th or early 7th century) it gives us a reference to many forms of furniture which were in use at the onset of the medieval period. Nearly all the basic forms of seating, which will be discussed in this blog, are present in these early illustrations.

Another common type of seating form, found throughout history, is the stool. This type of furniture, in our modern thought, is a simple and seldom used item; it can still be found in many homes, but is usually relegated to an object for accessing places too high to reach when one stands on the floor. This type is most often constructed of wood in a very simple, unadorned, manner. By our current definition, a "stool" is a piece of seating furniture, having three or four legs (usually) and no back. Another form of this which seems to be rather modern in invention, (post medieval) is the "bar stool", which is a high legged stool, but, because of its late entry into the world, will not be discussed further.

Although we usually associate the stool with a simple, even primitive, object, this was not always the case. There are many illustrations of kings, emperors, popes, bishops and the Virgin Mary, seated on, often very lavish, stools. Because a stool form, in its broadest context, can be more simple than a chair, and we can find very ancient examples of it, people often assume it came before the chair. This is a case, however, which I believe is not possible to prove in a definitive way. In most historical contexts where we find stools present, such as Egyptian pyramids, or the ruins of Knossos, we find chairs as well.

Seated Madonna, seen from the rear.
New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
12th century

By the definition of having legs, but no back, this is a 'stool', but is certainly much more elaborate than our modern concept of such items of furniture. I chose this example because it has five legs as opposed to the usual three or four. This example also offers some idea of the ornamentation which could go into such a piece of furniture. Much of the paint has crumbled away, but there is still ample evidence of the manner in which it was decorated; further, there are some bits of a three-dimensional gesso remaining, which hint at additional ornamentation. This decoration is hard to make out clearly, but it consists of foliage and reel-and-dart mouldings in the spandrels.

A similar form of seating which is found throughout the medieval period, but no longer exists today, is what many people often mistake for a "chest". Though I have never found any discussion of this form of furniture in books or online, it is the single most common type of seat depicted in medieval artwork, (based on more than 5000 illustrations which I have, at present, already studied). Since there seems to be no name for these seats, I have termed them "plinth chairs". Just for curiosity, I typed that term into a Google Image search window, and what was revealed has nothing to do with a plinth at all, so I am not sure how one gets "plinth chair" from a doctors examination apparatus, but I will leave modern things to those interested in such.

A "plinth" is an architectural element to support a structure, or part thereof, (i.e. columns) or to support an object such as a vase or sculpture - or, in our case, a living person. A plinth is an interface between an object and the ground, and as such, this seems to be the perfect description for this type of chair. A case for the fact that these chair depictions are distinct from chests can be made from three points, The first is that in many of the depictions, the indentation to the main body, as compared to the base and the seat, make it quite impractical as a useful chest. The second point, is that in no single example of this type of furniture, have I seen a depiction of a lock, whereas, they are almost always portrayed on chests. In fact, a lock is one type of imagery which medieval artists used to designate an object as a chests. (One could argue that a person sitting on such an object would obscure the lock, so this point alone, is rather weak evidence.) The third, and best argument, comes from the fact that in many manuscripts, one can find both 'plinth chairs' and chests in the same manuscript, and sometimes even in the same illustration; in these cases, it is very easy to see that the artist was portraying two distinct types of furniture.

St Luke Composing His Gospel
BNF Lat 17968 fol 83v
first half of the 9th century

Here we see St Luke in a contemplative posture, as if pondering the gravity of what he has just written; his chair is clearly distinct from the chest which stands beside him. It is also worth pointing out that both of these pieces of furniture depict panels in their sides. Notice, also, the lock in the front, and the hasp to the lock, on the lid; symbols used to indicate a chest. The plinth chair, which may or may not be able to double as a storage device, has no indication of being anything other than a seating apparatus, in this illustration.

Another form, related to the armchair and the plinth chair, is a "box chair", This type is not found in the Ashburnham Pentateuch, but versions of it can be found in early 9th century manuscripts and possibly some of the Insular Art, of the 7th and 8th centuries, though it is often hard to tell exactly what they are portraying, due to the great abstraction of form that this art style takes on. In essence, a box chair is a plinth chair with a back, or in some cases, a back and partial sides. Two famous medieval chairs which have actually survived, are of this form, viz the 9th century,so-called, St Peter's Chair, and the 6th century Chair of Maximian. Perhaps, the already mentioned Kaisers chair of Gosslar, falls into this category as well, though its base is a solid block of stone, as opposed to a box.

Chair of Archbishop Maximianu of Ravenna
Archiepiscopal Museum, Ravenna
6th century (from Wikipedia) 

Though the 'plinth chair' is the most common seating form depicted in medieval artwork, a close competitor would be the "X chair" in its several forms. The folks over in The Netherlands, who have been doing their St Thomas Guild blog for the past four years, (and were my inspiration for starting this one) have already posted a lot of information on this type of chair and its various subcategories, they even featured a finely preserved Danish example which is over 3000 years old. Most of the depictions of these 'X chairs', from the Middle Ages, have animal head and feet terminals to the legs; some of them seem to have been very large and ornate. Other depictions of these chairs, however, are of a simple metal from, very much like many of the bronze examples recovered from the ashes of Vesuvius. 

Relief sculpture on St peter's Church, Utrecht.
Though much more common in paintings, these "X chairs"
can be found in sculpture as well.

In the artwork from all periods of the Middle Ages, we also find "benches". These pieces of furniture can take on any and all of the various forms of chairs and stools. I even have one illustration of a double length 'x chair' though I am not sure how possible such an apparatus would actually be. As I have said before, medieval illustrators were not concerned with reality, so much as a concept, and placing two or more rulers on one bench was simply a way to portray the notion of co-rulers. Some of the best examples of this concept can be found in illustrations from the Book of Revelation, in which John mentions "twenty four elders, seated on thrones, judging...", in many examples, the artist drew two long 'throne benches' each with twelve occupants. There is probably no way to know if such benches were made for any real occasion, perhaps at a tournament, or a synod of bishops, but regardless, it would obviously be possible for someone to make such a thing, should the need arise. There are a some actual late medieval benches which have survived, the earliest I know of, coming from the 12th century. One example of these benches are three individual items made of stone, and can be fiund in the 13th century Norman Castle of Gioia del Colle, in southern Italy. A second example comes from Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, this is a turned wooden bench which supposedly belonged to a bishop of the church there, and is of late 12th century construction. I swiped this image from St Thomas Guild because, right now, I cannot find my picture of another similar, even longer, bench which is in a church ambulatory in Northern Germany.

Late 12th century bench from Sweden

Of course, we can also mention the numerous surviving examples of choir stalls found throughout Europe, some of which date back the the end of the 12th century. These fixed units are no more than benches with individual dividers to separate each occupant from his neighbour. Many of these stalls have high paneled and carved backs, with baldaquins or canopies overhead, very much like those found pictured in contemporary medieval manuscripts.

Not so easily classified as the preceding forms, are other types of furniture which are rather like "none of the above", and for the use of this blog, I will term as "other seating forms" These include alternate shapes to plinth chairs, as well as chairs made from barrels or even hollowed from logs, and chairs with elaborate backs or bases. The best way to understand this category will be to wait until it is explained in its own future posting. Here is one example, however, from the British Library's Harley manuscript collection. 

St Luke Composes His Gospel
early 9th century

In this example, we find St Luke seated on some sort of barrel shaped chair with scrolled brackets supporting the drapery behind him. This chair seems to be round in diametre and bombé in form, which means that the French of the 18th century did not invent this form of furniture, though, perhaps, they did in the 9th? (sorry Encyclopedia Britannica). Although it seems to have a base to it, as a plinth chair, chest, or box would, the artist has indicated short feet on it as well. The "back" of this chair is not a back, as we understand it, nor were many of the other chairs illustrated in this period of the Middle Ages. Persons of importance have always, on ceremonial or important functions, been seated in front of ornate draperies or tapestries which are termed a "Cloth of Honour". It is the hanging apparatus for this sort of drapery that is depicted here, in what looks to our modern eyes, like a back. In many other medieval illustrations, which show this part in more detail, we see that there is no structure, save a top rail, which could support a sitter, were he to lean back against it. (This, in no way, is intended to suggest that chairs of this type could not have back, as many other illustrations clearly show they did.)

Lastly, in this group of furnishings which we are discussing, comes a piece of furniture, which is not actually a seating implement at all, but which, none the less, must be covered in a discussion of seating in the Middle Ages. This device is called a "foot rest", and was indispensable to nearly anyone sitting in a chair in the time period of our topic. Like the chairs which they accompanied, they had almost endless possibilities in form and ornamentation. The last illustration actually shows two of these, but I rather suspect that the second one was added to compensate for the fact that the evangelist's feet would not reach the first one, as the artist had positioned it. This theory is supported by examining other works which seem to be produced by the same artist, none of which have a second foot rest, and also, by its awkward relative position.

When one wishes to catagorise nearly anything, they will soon run into problems of exactly where to put some items, overlaps of multiple catagories, and items which just do not neatly fit into any single segment. The same is true for this attempt at breaking down the various types of chairs illustrated during the course of the Middle Ages. Often, life does not willingly fit into nicely packaged boxes. Our catagories of, Throne Chair, Common Chair, Stool, Plinth Chair, Box Chair, X Chair, Bench, Foot Stool, and Other Seating Forms, should cover most of what was made in the medieval world of Europe. In future postings, I will be examining each of these types in more detail. A longer term goal of mine is to actually make a chair from each of these catagories.

Videre Scire

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