In one particularly confusing museum here in Rome, tourists can always be seen wandering around aimlessly, unsure of which displays to really focus on… and they invariably miss THIS extraordinary treasure.
This is a bishop’s chair, known in Latin as a cathedra. It was discovered during excavation of an early medieval church dedicated to St. Lawrence, right in the center of the city. (There are an amazing number of Roman churches dedicated to this saint–do you know why? We can explain!)
The chair that you see here in the glass case is a careful reconstruction of the original, which was made of wood, and covered with carved inlay made of pieces of bone. Archaeologists date it to the time of Pope Hadrian I (772-795), meaning it’s over 1400 years old.
It is the only known example of Roman ecclesiastical furniture from this period that is extant today, making it a real treasure!
When the archaeologists discovered it, of course, it was simply a pile of rubble: dozens of scattered bits of carved bone, rusty nails which had once pinned the carvings to the wooden frame, and possibly a few shreds of decayed wood (although buried wood could easily have disintegrated altogether, over the course of so many centuries). And all these pieces were mixed into a mountainous mess of stone and concrete fragments from the building that once housed it. It took both a sharp eye and a knowledge of medieval church decor to recognize what this once was! It helped that in St. Peter’s Basilica, a slightly more recent wooden chair of comparable size and style exists, dating from around the year 900 or so. That chair, of course, was constructed for the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. So why would there have been such an ornate chair as this one, in a now-destroyed church on the other side of town?
It’s a question without a clear answer. We know that the Pope didn’t always live on the Vatican Hill, but there’s no evidence that he ever resided here. And the church to St. Lawrence which once stood on the site of this museum was not known to have had any particular importance in medieval Rome. Could some Pope have given the chair to a cleric at that church, for some unknown reason? Was it a hand-me-down, perhaps? Or could it possibly have been stolen and hidden away here at some point? If these fragments could only talk to us…