Of Chairs and Peter


February 20, 2014

Most of this site’s well-catechized readers will be quite aware of the apologetical and theological backgrounds to the Petrine office, the real focus of this great feast.  The claims and prerogatives of Rome are a central topic of our faith, and our appreciation of them is honed by our dialogue with fellow Christians who find this point particularly difficult to accept.  Further, the fascinating liturgical history of this feast (and its ancient correlative on January 18) has been aptly and expertly handled elsewhere.  In addition, the old Catholic Encyclopedia has an archaeological background on the relics that were incorporated into the throne of Charles the Bald, today preserved in the apse of St. Peter’s.  Finally our greatly missed Pope-Emeritus himself penned a sublime meditation on the Altar of the Chair, the work of that universal genius, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  On walking into that mighty Church one’s vision is drawn through the massive baldacchino to the focal point of the great Basilica and the lynchpin of the Catholic faith, held up by the four Latin and Greek doctors and surmounted by the alabaster, light-infused window surrounded by rays of gold, with the Holy Spirit at the center.  It is, as Benedict said “the true focus for the pilgrim’s gaze as he crosses the threshold of the Vatican Basilica.”

It seems that all of the angles from which one might approach the mystery of the Chair of Peter have been covered.  This article then is about chairs.  Their quotidian nature does not immediately impress us as something charged with the symbolism of power and authority, reaching back to the dim mists of antiquity.  Chairs, particularly backed ones, did not come into common and popular use until quite recently.  For the vast majority of history chairs were associated with privilege, power, authority, and mastery.  Traces of this old concept can still be found in terms like “chairman,” in the practice of certain professors holding academic “chairs,” and in the honor with which parliamentarians and representatives address “The Chair.”

Altar of the Chair of Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City (Bernini)Historically one can distinguish four primary characteristics which came to be associated with “chair”: regal, juridical, magisterial, and sacerdotal.  All four are critical when considering the nature and meaning of the “Chair of Peter.”

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The most ancient and deeply established symbolism comes from the kingly power, whose holder is always pictured seated on the throne of his authority.  In nearly every ancient civilization kings and ruling deities are depicted while seated. The heavens are called the “Throne of Zeus.”  The Hebrew bible is replete with this image, particularly in the Psalms and in the evocative symbolism of Isaiah.  God confers thrones upon his elect, as demonstrated by the kings of the Hebrew people.  1 Kings 10: 18-19 takes great care in describing the elaborate throne of Solomon.  Its characteristics included gilding, indicating wealth and the dignity of the holder, carved lions that pointed to the tribe of Judah and the power of the king, and finally six steps which raised the throne above the heads of the surrounding people, symbolizing the exalted nature of the kingly office.  The Old Testament points to the New, continuing to use the language of seated authority, Ps 110:1 “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.”

Rome, in its eminent practicality, jettisoned the kings but kept the chairs, indicating the durability of the instrument even when the royal person had vacated it.  In particular their backless Curule chair was used whenever an official of the Republic exercised his most solemn duties.  These had to be performed in a ritually seated position for, even in the absence of monarchs, monarchical functions had to be accomplished.  Christianity continued the usages inherited from the past.  In both civil and religious functions the throne and the curule chair continued to be employed, in particular by the monarchical rulers of Christendom, and by those who held regal, or governing, authority in the Christian Church: the Bishops.

The seats they used came to be called after the Latin word for chair: cathedra.  The Bishop’s throne—which today one can see in all Cathedrals—is symbolic of the ruling authority of the relevant prelate.  The Pope’s official throne, for example, is in the apse of the Cathedral of Rome, St. John Lateran.  The ceremony of pontifical accession is only completed when the Pope makes his way from St. Peter’s to St. John’s, and is solemnly enthroned in the official Lateran “Chair of Peter.”  (Of course he is Pope when elected, but this ritual marks the culmination of the accession ceremonies, and the remnant of the exceptionally ancient, but now mostly discarded, ceremony of the possessio.  In addition, the ancient curule chair is still in use in the extraordinary form whenever the Bishop officiates away from his cathedra, but still in his own territory, he uses a curule chair called a “faldstool.”  All of these indicate the ruling authority conferred on the holder of an office.  We have lost much of this public reverence for rulership, perhaps even blunting our idea of God’s sovereignty, or of Christ the King.  Only in our modern democracies has standing become a posture of rulership, a reversal of millennia of tradition.

In the second place the chair indicates the power of judgment.  The judge sits to administer justice, as in the famous pictures of St. Louis IX personally judging cases seated under the oak tree.  Today our judges are collectively referred to as “the bench.”  When a Roman administrator sentenced anyone to death, he was always seated.  Both testaments give witness to this conception of justice, for example in Psalm 122:5, “there the thrones for judgment were set up.”  In the scriptures, authority to judge is always bound up with the regal authority above.  Paul uses this language in Romans 14:10: “we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”  Even today the distinction remains between the seated judge and the accused who must stand to hear judgment.  One could say that the whole of the book of Revelation pivots on this concept of seated judgment:  “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne … and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the book, according to their works” (Rev 20:11).

This regal and judicial authority are so closely joined in the chair of Peter as to be indissoluble.  For all appellate authority in the ancient Church was bound up in the Roman See.  When two bishops had a disagreement they could take it to their patriarch, but when two patriarchs had a disagreement they could always appeal to Rome.  We see St. Athanasius appealing to Rome in 341 against the Arians.  St. Cyril and Nestorius take their case there in 430 by appealing to Pope Celestine I, and Leo the Great, in his letter to Anastasius, describes the “ancient tradition” of appeals to Rome.  Indeed the primacy of the Apostolic See (from Latin sedes or seat) was universally accepted in the ancient Church, even though the content of that primacy continues to be a challenge for the historical branches of Christianity.

The symbolism of the chair that is most commonly associated with the “Chair of Peter” is that of Magisterial authority.  In the premodern world the position of teaching was sitting.  All of the ancient spiritual and academic masters taught from a seated position.  Christ himself sits to preach, as we read in Luke 4.  He speaks of being subject to the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, even in their hypocrisy, since they “sit in Moses’ seat” (Mt 23:2).  Just as before teaching—the communication of truth—is tied into regal and judicial authority, for bound up in all of them is the duty to order things rightly.  As St. Thomas says “sapientis est ordinare” that is, the office of the wise person is to order or judge.  Professors in the middle ages, just like today, hold chairs which are positions of magisterial authority even if, like the Pharisees, they sometimes hypocritically exercise it.  In the medieval and early modern classroom, the professor sat.  (I often silently curse those 19th century German professors who thought it au courant to lecture while standing.  Of course there are other, better things to curse 19th century German professors for).

For this reason the position of magisterial authority in the Church has always been exercised in the seated position.  Christ himself is often pictured in this posture during the first millennium of Christianity—one thinks of the powerful Pantocrator imagery.  For this reason the Pope and bishops for centuries preached sitting down, that is, when exercising their office as pastors and teachers, they adopted the seated position to indicate the authoritative nature of their discourse, in imitation of Christ Himself who taught while seated.  Indeed this practice even extended to inanimate objects, such as the solemn enthronement of the book of the Gospels at Ecumenical Councils.  It is exceedingly unfortunate that this practice has been largely abandoned.  A priest gives a sermon standing up, for he has no part of the Magisterium of the Church.  When, however, the faithful witness a Bishop preaching in a seated position, or the Pope delivering his remarks from the throne, they are powerfully reminded of that union of king, judge, and teacher that the position evokes.

Finally the seated position recalls the sacerdotal authority of the Christian priest, who arises only to offer sacrifice to God Himself enthroned in majesty, for the golden altar itself faces the throne of God (Rev 8:3).  Like Christ the High Priest, our high priests are also enthroned, surrounded by angelic attendants (there is a reason that angels are depicted in Dalmatics in art).  The honor accorded to the Pope and Bishops, and even simple priests in the solemnization of the liturgy is not for them as men, but for them in their leadership roles in persona Christi.  In seeing a vimpa holding the pontifical regalia, one sees a reflection of the honor due to Christ.  When the deacons kneel before the priest to receive a blessing or to obtain the imposition of incense, one beholds the choirs of angels who offer incense continually in the presence of the throne of God.

One should see that all of these are united together in our celebration of the “Chair of Peter.”  The holder of the office of Pope, and to a lesser extent, that of Bishop, holds regal power, judicial authority, the power to teach in Christ’s name, and the honor of acting in persona Christi.  All of these are intimately associated, in our richly incarnational reality, with the simple human activity of sitting.

Somewhat disconcertingly, Pope Francis has minimized the use of the throne in his public addresses, particularly those made during homilies.  In a very real sense this eliminates the power of the symbolism I have mentioned above.  However I would like to point out that there is one further function of authority that I have left out, and which does not seem to be historically rooted in the practice of sitting.  This is the office of prophecy.  Because of the dynamism and challenge represented by that aspect of authority, sitting does not become the prophet.  It is perhaps to be thought that the Pope is emphasizing this aspect of the office, for sometimes Peter must rise from his throne, from his magisterial position, from his judgment seat, and go to seek the lost sheep.  Yet one should not forget that the “Chair of Peter” remains fixed and established forever since, when the pastor has found the sheep he brings it back to the sheepfold there again to repose in quiet superintendence and watchfulness over the flock.  In that chair is suffused the offices of Priesthood and Kingship, teaching and judgment, and indeed prophecy as well.

Editor’s note: The above image is a photo of the Altar of the Chair of Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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