Roman Presidential Chairs: A Lesson for Our Day

May 09, 2007

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If we follow the old axiom about form following function -- how do we design seating for the assembly, and in particular the presidential chair?  I propose that we look at the tradition of the presidential chair in Rome to guide us today.  The chair, it seems, came to reflect the function not of presiding but rather the power of the one who sat there.  If we look at the relic kept at S. Stefano in Rotundo in Rome, which was labeled as the "chair of Gregory the Great" -- we see an early form -- really just a section of a bench that ran the circumference of the apse.


This is form with a single function -- sitting.  The theology seems clear: the one who presides did so from within a college of presbyters.  When he is seated, someone else takes the leadership in the assembly.  Remnants of this arrangement can be seen in Santa Balbina and even more clearly in Santa Sabina in Rome.

Presidential chair and apsidal presidential chair in secondary apse

In Cathedral churches, there was the added chair known largely as the throne of the bishop.  Given the role the bishop had in society for many centuries, something approaching a throne seems to make a fair bit of sense, even if it didn't make so much sense liturgically.  The theological notion that the one who presided did so in imitation of Christ reigning in heaven was hard to miss, given the number of apse mosaics like the one from St. Paul Outside the Walls.  The one presiding sat immediately beneath this image -- evidently on a sedelia ( which was constructed either a single seat to hold three ministers or a combination of three seats) -- but more on that later.

What was good for the bishop was likewise good for the priest.  Architecturally, the theology of the priesthood was to be embodied in the chair.  Notice in these examples from Santa Maria Trastevere and Santa Maria in Cosmedin that the priest is still sitting on what could be considered a section of bench, not unlike what we saw from the Gregory chair.  But look at what has happened to where the hands and the head of the priest go.  The hands, which have "the power" in them, controlled either lions or griffins (!) and when seated, the head of the priest would end up in a stone nimbus which would appear around his head when he sat, clearly showing everyone that this person was in some way a heavenly being.

At the end, here are three conclusions to this brief reflection.  Based on the reflections of what was done in Rome over the centuries, perhaps we can find ways to express our liturgical theology today.

1.  We know all too well that the priest is one of the faithful.  He comes from us and is one with us in needing God's grace and the redemption won for us in Jesus.  This is important both in how we refrain from idolizing the priest, and in terms of recruiting new candidates for the priesthood.  They do not come from heaven, they come from the assembly.  If it appears that the chair is exclusively an extension of the ambo or even the altar, we have a problem.  At the same time, if the seats of the assembly have nothing in common with the altar, that likewise speaks volumes.  All needs to be in harmony, each needs to be related to the other.

2.  Pope Benedict XVI has been concerned about the liturgy becoming too focused on the person of the priest.  The size and placement of the chair can contribute to this problem.  While the priest leads individual moments of the liturgy, there are times when he presides by not being the center of attention.  The perception that a chair that is not close to the people makes him somehow disconnected is more a perception of the priest than of the people.  A chair that is so large as to dominate the space is also a problem.  A chair that is somehow balancing the altar and the ambo makes the priest a third focus of the liturgy (a fourth if the tabernacle is there).  Perhaps the ancient placement of the apse reorganizes the space and places the altar and ambo in the midst of the presider and the people, stressing the centrality of the altar and ambo, as well as showing the gathered nature of the assembly.  It also allows for the priest to fade literally into the woodwork when appropriate, for example as the readings are proclaimed.

3.  At the same time, the presiding priest is indispensable for the celebration of the Eucharist.  We need to avoid the elimination of the chair.  Somehow it needs to speak of the office -- perhaps the image of the servant leader would be best -- the one who presides also serves.

4.  Places for other ministers.  As for the sedilia -- the bench used by the priest, deacon and subdeacon at Solemn Masses -- after the reforms flowing from Vatican II, many of these were converted with greater or lesser success into presidential chairs, with altar servers taking the places of the clerics.  What kind of theology does this present?  How practical is it?  Does it serve the liturgy?

This brief overview is an example of how those doing building and renovating projects needs to do theology -- not architecture.  Explaining the need for a church that is gathered, for a place for the priest that links him to the people and allows him to be both presiding minister and attentive participant in the rites -- this is theology.  A good architect can do something creative with this.

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer is e-products and service manager at Oregon Catholic Press, Portland, OR and co-author of The Catholic Catechists Companion Book (ISBN 1-57992-118-3) and Parish Liturgy Basic (ISBN 1-56929-073-3).

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