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Object of the Month: January 2019



Spanish, mid 15th century

A chair, from the English chaere or Latin cathedra, is one of the most common pieces of furniture and easily identified in its simplest form by its parts—back, seat, arms and legs. The chair’s specific purpose can be discerned by more descriptive names such as recliner, wheelchair, throne, etc.  Of course, the person “who takes a seat” can further outline the chair’s scope such as the Queen of England positioned in The Chair in the House of Commons to open a new session of Parliament, a ruling monarch seated on a throne to make a solemn declaration, or a bishop (such as the Pope, known as the Bishop of Rome) adopting a position in a cathedra or cathedrae apostolorum (as it occurs in early church writings) to teach with apostolic authority.

The Museum & Gallery’s furniture collection from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries is known as the most extensive representation in America and includes several types of ecclesiastical chairs, four of which are cathedrae.  Each of the four has interesting designs and carvings, but the oldest in the collection possesses by far the most intriguing and traceable features.  

Gazing from the back panel of the Cathedra is a sculpted female figure representing St. Lucy, one of the most venerated female saints in martyrology and mentioned in the Catholic mass itself. She holds two objects: a palm frond, symbolic of victory in death and a platter with eyes, her most common and legendary attribute.

Just under the seat panel is a misericord. Since many of the medieval and early Renaissance ceremonial prayers were uttered in a standing position, the misericord acted as a place to “rest” or lean on during the long ceremony thereby allowing the bishop to obtain a type of “mercy.”

This Spanish Cathedra dates with certainty to the 1400s due mostly to the identifiable coat of arms of Bishop Alonso de Burgos, born in 1415 in Burgos, Spain, the capital of Old Castile. The galero or pilgrim’s hat and tassels were common elements of the crest of a bishop, with the center shield denoting a particular symbol of heritage or character, in this case a lily in the stylized form of a fleur-de-lis, which is a symbol of purity. Alonso’s influence as a bishop was widespread as he served in the central Spain dioceses of Cordoba, Cuenca, and Palencia. Ordained as a Dominican monk at an early age, Alonso so earnestly and diligently applied himself to his vocation as a Catholic clergyman that he was readily noticed and subsequently assigned as confessor by the renowned Catholic Monarchs, a collective term for Spanish King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, under whose banner Columbus sailed.  

Beyond being instrumental in the financing of some of the voyages of the discoverer, Bishop Alonso’s influence was exhibited in founding a center for Dominican study, the Collegio de San Gregorio, an Isabelline-style building located in the city of Valladolid. Readily visible throughout the architecture is Alonso’s heraldry.  

Bonnie Merkle, M&G Docent and Database Manager


Published in 2019