Game of Thrones may have ended its run but our love of regal seating has not subsided. Designers of furniture in 19th century France loved thrones too and lead us to believe that many a Frenchman (or woman) longed to have one of these "lord-of-the-manor" chairs at home or at the office.
As we know from our research about the development of furniture in the Middle Ages, this style of throne chair began life as a chest whose top became the seat (and still opens for purposes of stashing away valuable objects). A tall back and a pair of armrests were added and, as in this case, the back is intricately carved.
Interestingly, these high-backed chairs were not the seat of royalty in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as we know from contemporary records of the Fauteuil Dagobert and of the seat from which Henri II ruled France before his untimely death during a ceremonial jousting match in 1559. Even Napoleon, who crowned himself emperor in 1804, reigned from a low-back chair still on display at Fontainebleau Castle.
Rather, chairs with high backs developed in the Middle Ages for use in a cathedral as the seat reserved for its bishop. This style of chair was known as a chayre or chaise cathèdre. The term “cathedral,” for church that is the seat of a bishop, derived directly from the use of this type of chair in early Christian basilicas.
When Gothic became stylish in the 19th century, sparked by the renovation of Notre Dame de Paris and other buildings dating from the Middle Ages, the high-backed chair experienced a Renaissance of its own. Apart from use in an ecclesiastical setting, the chairs were found in palaces and, in addition to “throne chairs,” came to be known in English as “hall chairs.”
The 19th century revival of Gothic style also spurred a renewed interest in heraldry and the use of coats-of-arms on cabinets, chests, and chairs. Here, the coat-of-arms is central to the design of the back of the chair. Visible when no one is seated, it may have been occupied regularly by the person who commissioned it to publicize his family’s crest.
The coat-of-arms consists of a badge-style shield below a crown. We are not experts in heraldry but thanks to the website Fleur-de-lis Designs we learned that the circle on the left side of the shield is an annulet representing the fifth-born son of a family and signifies fidelity and commitment. The two fleur-de-lys on the right side of the shield could mean sixth-born (perhaps two because of twins?) but we prefer to ascribe a link to French royalty who adopted the fleur-de-lys as their symbol, especially since the shield is capped here by a crown. The shield is divided in half by a diagonal bend or barre running from top right to bottom left. Beyond this speculation, our research has not linked the coat-of-arms to a specific family or place.
The chair is rich in other intricately carved elements, especially characteristic of Gothic style. For example, lancet arches abound. These tall, slim arches, with a pointed figure atop notches or small indentations, represent one of the most basic components of Gothic architecture. For example, in their masonry form they march like soldiers along the base of stained glass rose windows as in the north and south transepts of Notre Dame de Paris.
In the central part of the back of this chair, lancet arches contained within broader arches form the base on which the shield (escutcheon) of the coat-of-arms rests. Enclosing the shield and the crown above it is a graceful ogee arch whose top extends upward into the top section of the larger arch running the height of the back. The larger arch is framed on either side by super skinny lancet arches poised on top of one another. Lancet arches are also found on sections filled with Gothic motifs on either side of the main part of the back containing the coat-of-arms.
The outer sides of the top of the chair include a spiral zigzag pattern that is highly unusual. We speculate that it is designed to remind us of the pillars in Gothic cathedrals with their intricate spiral patterns symbolizing eternal life.
Atop the chair is an unusual rail reminiscent of crenellations atop medieval castles. This is in contrast to the more customary topping for a throne chair in the form of a railing of open tracery. However, the crenellations may have been used to impart a sense of the chair as a fortress, the seat of authority for a powerful occupant whose coat-of-arms it displays.
At the base of the central and side sections of the back are blocks of Gothic ornament including a heart-shaped motif and soufflets or elliptical-shaped quatrefoils. While we have seen heart-shaped tracery in other Gothic-style pieces from our collection, such as bench 5202 and bench 4173, this element is different in that its outline is wider and it seems more akin to vegetation due to the curlicues turning inward at the top. We have not seen such a figure before.
The front of the base reminds the viewer that throne chairs evolved from Gothic chests whose fronts also involved elaborate tracery designs with lancet arches and trefoils (see, for example, chest 4158). Angled shields each contain one fleur-de-lys. This nod to chests continues on the sides of the base, where linen-fold panels are used, just as on Gothic chests.
As mentioned above, the seat lifts up to supply a roomy storage compartment. Hinges connecting the chair to the top of the seat are original and highly decorative, in keeping with the tracery designs on the chair’s back and on the front of the base.
That the chair may have had some ecclesiastical function is signaled by the cross carved into the front of the armrests. Or it might mean that the person who commissioned it wanted to signal his or her faith by including the crosses.
Just as the top of the back reminds us of massive crenellated structures, the armrests are unusually wide and extend out to a hexagonal end-piece reminiscent of extensions of corners atop a medieval castle from which its defenders would shoot arrows and pour pots of boiling oil at any attackers below. The vertical supports are carved with vertical indentations at the four corners, mimicking architectural columns. Facing outward, and above the cross, is a single lancet arch.
The chair sits on short, square, unornamented legs, lending a further sense of importance and fortification – a castle masquerading as a chair.
As photos of the back of the chair indicate, below, it was made of three main rectangular panels, as the basis for the Gothic tracery on the front, separated by two verticals that are relatively unadorned on their front sides. The reverse sides of these verticals have several deep gouges. However, they do not affect the structural integrity of the throne chair and are not visible from the front.
There is some damage to the oak near the middle of the tall vertical piece at the right side of the back (when viewed from the rear) and to the horizontal member at the base (between the chair’s back legs).
The chair is beautifully preserved, especially its intricate carving that is quite extraordinary, when we consider that it is made of oak, one of the hardest of woods.
Ader-Tajan, Collection Bruno Perrier Haute Epoque (Catalog for Sale at Auction on April 6, 1992 at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris); Boccador, Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance (Editions d'Art Monelle Hayot, Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Fligny, Laurence, Le Mobilier en Picardie 1200-1700 (Picard Editeur, Paris, 1990); Thirion, Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance en France (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1998); Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène, Le Mobilier Médiéval (Georges Bernage, editor) (Editions Heimdal, 2003)
This throne chair could function as a "hall chair" in the entryway of a home but could also be placed at the head of a Gothic dining table, including one used as a conference table.