Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thrones in Majesty

The official Versailles website is a tremendous resource for historical information. Last spring an exhibit was held entitled "Thrones in Majesty" about the history of seats of power, going back to primitive times. The press kit that accompanied the exhibit, including an interview with curator Jacques Charles-Gaffiot, is still on line and absolutely fascinating to read. To quote:
The throne is a universal symbol. The Aztecs, who had had no contact with Europe, used thrones just as their Spanish conquerors did! In India, the statues of the awakened Buddha seated under his pipal tree echo the statues of the medieval French Saint Louis administering justice under his oak tree....

A seat becomes a throne when it is “staged” by the use of three principal elements: the platform, the canopy and the footstool. The platform isolates and raises it above the crowd, making the holder of authority more visible. It is also a sign of proximity with the celestial powers. The canopy is a symbolic representation of the heavenly vault, the place of divine authority. The upper part of the canopy is also referred to as the ‘heaven’. Lastly, the footstool is the substitute of the defeated enemy on which the weight and legitimacy of authority triumphing over Evil is exercised with serenity, not by its power, or the violence or personal strength of its holder, but in virtue of a pact of assistance concluded with a higher entity.....

In modern history, I trace [the erosion of authority] back to the anarchist movements of the 19th century and the various revolutionary episodes that took place notably in France in this period. It was then that the phobia of the throne was expressed with the greatest virulence. In 1830, the throne of Charles X, after being used as a mortuary bed for the corpse of a young student, was destroyed. In 1848, the throne of Louis-Philippe was burned publically on the Place de the Bastille. French rulers, since the presidencies of general De Gaulle and Georges Pompidou (and in certain aspects François Mitterrand), seem to disregard the seated position. The Head of State is seated in his official car, but is hidden behind tinted windows. In France today, as in the United States and in a large number of countries, the President of the Republic makes his addresses from behind a Plexiglas stand. I see in this an inversion of the traditional respective positions of rulers and subjects that that goes back to the Protestant Reformation. In the 16th century, the celebrants of the Protestant faith stood before the seated faithful, in contrast to the customs of the Catholic and Eastern churches where the bishop was seated in his throne chair facing the standing congregation. This attitude is also a return to the model followed by Athenian democracy: the orator stood before the boule assembly, facing the conscripted members, in danger of being interrupted at any moment if he failed to be sufficiently eloquent. He had to be able to hold on to his audience to the end, at the risk of appearing to be a demagogue. Even in some contemporary monarchies, the seat of authority is prohibited. Thus, as constitutional monarchs, Spanish kings refrain from sitting on their throne during official ceremonies. Another influence that I would like to point out is the Enlightenment movement. The new ideas seem to have had the effect of making the kings of the century of Louis XV entertain some doubts about the origin of their mission. While they had themselves painted seated in majesty until the end of the 17th century, during the following century they were more often depicted in a standing position with a martial and dominating posture which relegated the royal throne to the background as a superfluous encumbrance. This aspect is clearly visible in the full-length portraits of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and many other monarchs of this period. (Read entire article, pp.6-7.)

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