Saturday, January 5, 2013

What is a Chair?

The question is not facetious since a chair is much more than a piece of furniture. My friend who creates furniture as sculpture might disagree.

Even an article in the NYTimes today by Al Baker about classroom chairs indicates that the standard, stacked, steel chairs used widely across the country in schools are being replaced by ergonomic seats that, since they fit the shape of the body, allow students a bit of "sovereignty" by allowing them the freedom to move.  Goodbye to rigid teaching and rote learning?

Clearly the chairs we sit in have many social functions; what they symbolize interests me. And their history.

I began this investigation by listening to TV news commentators discussing House and Senate chairmanships and was reminded of the issue of using "chair" rather than "chairman" at the university where I taught. Universities have endowed chairs as well as influential chairs (once called chairmen) who run departments. The father of the family traditionally sits at the head of the dining table....So I asked myself, why is the chair the place of leadership and authority and not just a piece of furniture?

I remembered that cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra for chair: the seat of the bishop is there.  St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, for example, is not a cathedral, to the surprise of many; the pope as bishop of Rome has his traditional seat (sedes, See) in the Lateran, the old home of the papacy. Many people seem to think that any huge church is a cathedral.

In Catholic tradition, the chair of the bishop (or priest when he presides at the Mass) is not a throne; it is a place from which he teaches and where he presides.  The present pope often preaches from a seated position, the more ancient way of teaching used by Jesus.  Many people who read the Gospels imagine Christ standing as he gives his parables.  Scholars tell us that in the ancient world, teachers like Jesus sat as they taught, just as judges always have in court. So the chair has long been the chief symbol of authority and office.

I remember a line from one of the old Marian litanies that puzzled me: "Seat of Wisdom, pray for us."  Catholics pray to Mary, enthroned as Queen of Heaven, seated next to her son, who is "seated at the right hand of the Father." (An exalted position of authority, to be sure, expressed metaphorically.)

In a 2005 Spectrum article, B. N. Goswamy presents a brief history of the sitting position, which philosophers once designated the seat of the soul, of intelligence, reason and wisdom.  So power comes to mind when we think of what chairs signify--not comfort, not the freedom for more wiggle room in classrooms. The Queen reads her speech each year to Parliament from a seated position (in a throne, of course).

A fuller treatment of the chair in daily secular use might include paintings of chairs, like Van Gogh's, as well as the "final" chair Andy Warhol depicted in 1967: the electric chair. What have so many victims of capital punishment in modern times been seated rather than lying on a flat bed?

Clearly, the chair has various political, social and religious meanings that go beyond its physical function as a piece of furniture. Another question: when the chair as furniture is turned into a work of art, are some of these symbolic functions suggested?

All of this requires further investigation.  I welcome comments at or at the blog comments spot.

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