St. Peter's Chair
The chair of St. Peter is one of the most interesting relics of the Middle Ages. The woodcut will shew the design, which is, like other work of the period, Byzantine, and the following description is taken from Mr. Hungerford Pollen's introduction to the South Kensington catalogue: - "The chair is constructed of wood, overlaid with carved ivory work and gold. The back is bound together with iron. It is a square with solid front and arms. The width in front is 39 inches; the height in front 30 inches, shewing that a scabellum or footstool must have belonged to it . . ... In the front are 18 groups or compositions from the Gospels, carved in ivory with exquisite fineness, and worked with inlay of the purest gold. On the outer sides are several little figures carved in ivory. It formed, according to tradition, part of the furniture of the house of the Senator Pudens, an early convert to the Christian faith. It is he who gave to the Church his house in Rome, of which much that remains is covered by the Church of St. Pudcnziana. Pudens gave this chair to St. Peter, and it became the throne of the See. It was kept in the old Basilica of St. Peter's." Since then it has been transferred from place to place, until now it remains in the present Church of St. Peter's, bat is completely hidden from view by the seat or covering made in 1667, by Bernini, out of bronze taken from the Pantheon,
Much has been written about this famous chair. Cardinal Wiseman and the Cavaliere de Rossi have defended its reputation and its history, and Mr. Nesbitt, some years ago, read a paper on the subject before the Society of Antiquaries.
Formerly there was in Venice another "chair of St. Peter," of which there is a sketch from a photograph in Mrs. Oliphant's "Makers of Venice." It is said to have been a present from the Emperor Michael, son of Theophilus (824-864), to the Venetian Republic in recognition of services rendered, by either the Doge Gradonico, who died in 864, or his predecessor, against the Mahommedan incursions. Fragments only now remain, and these are preserved in the Church of St. Pietro, at Castello.
There is also a chair of historic fame preserved in Venice, and now kept in the treasury of St. Mark's. Originally in Alexandria, it was sent to Constantinople and formed part of the spoils taken by the Venetians in 1204. Like both the other chairs, this was also ornamented with ivory plaques, but these have been replaced by ornamental marble.
The earliest of the before-mentioned chairs, namely, the one at Ravenna, was made for the Archbishop about 546 to 556, and is thus described in Mr. Maskell's "Handbook on Ivories," in the Science and Art series: - " The chair has a high back, round in shape, and is entirely covered with plaques of ivory arranged in panels carved in high relief with scenes from the Gospels and with figures of saints. The plaques have borders with foliated ornaments, birds and animals; flowers and fruits filling the intermediate spaces. Du Sommerard names amongst the most remarkable subjects, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Flight into Egypt, and the Baptism of Our Lord." The chair has also been described by Passeri, the famous Italian antiquary, and a paper upon it was read by Sir Digby Wyatt, before the Arundel Society, in which he remarked that as it had been fortunately preserved as a holy relic, it wore almost the same appearance as when used by the prelate for whom it was made, save for the beautiful tint with which time had invested it.
Long before the general break up of the vast Roman Empire, influences had been at work to decentralise Art, and cause the migration of trained and skilful artisans to countries where their work would build up fresh industries, and give an impetus to progress, where hitherto there had been stagnation. One of these influences was the decree issued in a.d. 726 by Leo. III., Emperor of the Eastern Empire, prohibiting all image worship. The consequences to Art of such a decree were doubtless similar to the fanatical proceedings of the English Puritans of the seventeenth century; and artists, driven from their homes, were scattered to the different European capitals, where they were gladly received and found employment and patronage.
It should be borne in mind that at this time Venice was gradually rising to that marvellous position of wealth and power which she afterwards held.
"A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was; - her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Pour'd in her lap all gems in sparkling showers;
In purple was she robed and of her feasts
Monarchs partook, and deemed their dignity increased."
Her wealthy merchants were well acquainted with the arts and manufactures of other countries, and Venice would be just one of those cities to attract the artist refugee. It is indeed here that wood carving as an Art may be said to have specially developed itself, and though, from its destructible nature, there are very few specimens extant dating from this early time, yet we shall see that two or three hundred years later, ornamental woodwork nourished in a state of perfection which must have required a long probationary period.