Chairs, benches, sofas or stools – seats are more than just somewhere to rest our legs: They are also used to display power. UZH art historian Sabine Sommerer researches the phenomenon – from thrones of old to the recent “sofagate” and Putin on horseback.
Text: Simona Ryser
Three people – one woman, two men – enter the room. In a central position commanding the room are two chairs. The men sit down, the woman, after a brief irritated “Ahem?”, sits on the sofa to the side. No, it’s not adults playing a game of musical chairs. In fact it was a very public event on the stage of high-level global politics, the pictures of which did the internet rounds with the hashtag “sofagate”. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan provided only two chairs for the EU-Turkey meeting in April, for himself and EU council president Charles Michel. The third in the group, EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen, was relegated to a sofa that was placed off to the side.
“This scene is a perfect example of how even today chairs and seating arrangements can still be used to display power,” says Sabine Sommerer of the Institute of Art History at the University of Zurich. In her habilitation project, for which she received support from the UZH Research Fund, she investigated the use of seating arrangements to display, create and consolidate authority in the Middle Ages. It has a long tradition. “Erdoǧan was acting precisely according to the medieval custom,” explains Sommerer. As the host, he could stipulate the seating arrangements and protocol – even if it went against certain conventions. In doing so, Erdoǧan used simple means to embarrass and provoke his guests in front of the whole world, and led the two top EU politicians on a strange dance across the stage of global political theater. He showed quite clearly who was boss.
Sabine Sommerer reads the sofagate photo like a medieval royal portrait: The main axis is between the two chairs in the center on which Erdoǧan and Michel are sitting. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is sitting further into the foreground on a sofa, at the same height as Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on the other side. This gives the impression that she is sitting lower down. It is the exact same hierarchy that one sees in medieval court paintings, in which the king is placed in an elevated position in the center, the next in rank always to his right, while the other people are further away and lower down.
Being seated is not only a privilege of comfort, but in particular of authority; it is a sign of distinction, says Sommerer. The king, the abbess, the bishop, the priest are allowed to sit. The person who is “enthroned” is elevated above the peasants. “Seats are far more than mere objects – they symbolize dignity, divine power and leadership,” says the art historian. She is currently in Rome, where she was invited as a visiting scholar at the Bibliotheca Hertziana of the Max Planck Institute of Art History. In her research project Sabine Sommerer is investigating around one hundred chairs – mainly ecclesiastical, including many bishops’ thrones, as well as lay seating arrangements and royal thrones, dating from late antiquity to the post-reformation period around 1554. “You can also see from the high-quality furnishings, materials and ostentatious ornamentation that thrones were used to signal power,” explains the art historian. Animal motifs, for example, indicate that the chair owner is from the elite, while reliefs of horsemen serve to remind us of the ruler’s arrival into the city, the adventus.
Many medieval chairs are not one-piece carvings but consist of various filler materials and reused fragments, known as spolia. Sabine Sommerer recounts seeing a heterogeneous gem of a throne in the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Lucina, in Rome. The armrests of this bishop’s throne from 1112 consist of two sawn-off parts of a marble relief showing grapevines and small animals that dates from antiquity. The birds, snakes and vines are wholly suitable for the liturgical context. The backrest of the seat bears an inscription that says that the relics of the holy martyr Saint Laurence – ashes and phials of blood – have been blessed and, witnessed by the people, moved from an old altar into a new one. “The chair is thus also a witness and certificate of authenticity,” says Sommerer. The inscription serves as evidence for the authenticity of the relics and confirms that the deposition of the relics in the altar really took place.
The art historian is not only interested in how the respective seats were created, but also in their life stories. Chairs also go on journeys, for example when they change hands, perhaps as a gift for a monarch. A legendary origin story or a holy owner is attributed to them, or they have turbulent biographies, for example having been plundered. The latter is the case for the United Kingdom’s historical Coronation Chair, the powerful effect of which is still felt today.
It also has great symbolic power: Under the seat of the oak chair is a hollow space containing a red sandstone called the Stone of Scone. This stone comes from the spoils of war. The Scots used to use the Stone of Scone for their coronation ritual. In the English-Scottish war, King Edward I stole the stone from the Scots in 1296 and had it incorporated into the coronation chair that was built for him. It thus became a vivid emblem of the English victory over Scotland: The monarch does not simply sit on a chair, but actually sits on the Scottish coronation stone, i.e. literally occupies Scotland.
Not until 700 years later, in 1996, was the Stone of Scone returned to Scotland – under the proviso that the stone would be made available for the next coronation of a British monarch. “It will be interesting to see at the next coronation how the royal family chooses to present the return and placement of the Stone of Scone,” says Sommerer.
But what about modern forms of enthronement in countries that do not have monarchies? In dictatorships and autocratic states, public displays of power are par for the course these days. “It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an actual throne,” says Sommerer and produces two photographs. One shows Putin, the other Kim Jong-un, both of them on horseback. When the Russian president and the North Korean leader present themselves as heroic horsemen, they are following in the rich tradition of horse-and-rider monuments used to immortalize rulers since antiquity, explains the researcher with a laugh: “In democratic societies, such pictures would probably be cause for irritation.” It’s hard to imagine our Swiss federal councilors gallopping forth on horses bedecked with gold trimmings.
What role do chairs and seating arrangements play in countries where power symbols are less obvious and etiquette is less prescriptive? Since the French Revolution and in democratic societies, displays of power have become significantly rarer, says Sommerer. But seating rules or the breaking of such rules can carry considerable political force, as shown by an incident in Zurich in the run-up to the youth protests of 1968. At the first concert played by the Rolling Stones in the Hallenstadion in 1967, the young audience members did not want to sit on the seats provided. Shortly before the start of the concert, the crowd stood up and surged forward to the edge of the stage. They were rebelling against the rules of a society which told them they had to sit sensibly during the concert. After the concert, things got really heated: A few concertgoers went on the rampage, leaving a chaotic scene of splintered wooden chairs in heaps. The incident was portrayed by the media as the trigger for the so-called Globus riots of 1968, when young protesters occupied the empty temporary Globus building on Bahnhofbrücke, leading to serious clashes with the police.
Since then, throwing chairs around in protest has been rare, but social hierarchies are still sometimes evident in seating arrangements in our everyday lives. Sommerer points out that in modern office buildings, the CEO’s chair is often luxuriously large whereas the workers in the open-plan office have to make do with standard office chairs (if they are lucky enough to have their own chair at all). It’s still possible to sit like a king or queen at home though – for example by finding a sumptuous vintage armchair in a second-hand store which even comes with its own backstory like the historic thrones of monarchs across the ages.
Simona Ryser is an author and freelance journalist.