The Chateau de Versailles is rediscovering its grand tradition. Instead of hyping contemporary art, as it did in recent years, the museum’s new exhibition explores a truly royal subject -- thrones.
Some 40 specimens, scattered over the State Apartments, illustrate how different civilizations emphasized the majesty of their rulers. It’s a magnificent show.
One of the oldest pieces is the so-called Throne of Dagobert from the basilica of St. Denis, the burial place of French kings. The bronze chair dating from the 7th century survived the looting by the revolutionaries because it had been hidden at the National Library, where it still is.
Louis XVI, whom the “sans culottes” guillotined, and other crowned heads are represented by sumptuous thrones on which they never sat. They were sent abroad to symbolize the absent monarch at their embassies.
In the Salle du Sacre, named after a copy of David’s painting of Napoleon’s coronation, there’s the mobile chair on which Pius VII officiated at the ceremony. Two thrones for the emperor, on display in the same room, are splendid examples of the Empire style at its most ostentatious.
Pontiffs are all over the place. Some may know Innocent X from Velazquez’s portrait. Others will remember him as Francis Bacon’s screaming pope. His throne is here, designed by the great Bernini.
The popes were the only sovereigns in the Western world to use portable thrones. In the Hall of Mirrors, there’s the sedia gestatoria on which Pius VII was carried by 12 sediari, symbolizing the 12 apostles, into St. Peter’s basilica.
I had high hopes -- alas, in vain -- to also find the legendary sedia stercoraria, the pierced chair that reputedly was used to examine the sex of a newly elected pope.
In contrast to Europe, portable thrones were widespread in Asia. The show displays various types, including a howdah, a sort of carriage placed on an elephant’s back. Another version, the palanquin, a sedan chair carried on two horizontal poles by four or six bearers, was a gift from the king of Siam to Napoleon III.
Many of the thrones in the exhibition are decorated with animals -- lions and eagles in Europe, dragons in China, pumas and other wild cats in pre-Columbian America.
In the Salon de Mercure, the organizers have brought together a couple of sitting deities -- Buddha, Christ, the Egyptian god Somtus. Beautiful though the sculptures are, they are out of place here.
In the catalog, Jacques Charles-Gaffiot, the curator, deplores the decline of thrones as a symptom of a society that holds authority in low esteem.
One of the culprits, he says, long before the rebellious 1960s, was the Protestant service which pushed the bishop from his episcopal see. Presidents now stand in front of a camera speaking to their subjects who are disrespectfully slouched in armchairs.
Whatever you think of this lament, the last item in the show, the humble seat from which the French president watches the military parade on the Champs-Elysees once a year, leaves no doubt that the heyday of the throne is over.
“Trones en Majeste” runs through June 19. Information: http://www.chateauversailles.fr or +33-1-3083-7800.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)