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The chair is of extreme antiquity and simplicity, although for many centuries and indeed for thousands of years it was an article of state and dignity rather than an article of ordinary use. “The chair” is still extensively used as the emblem of authority in the British House of Commons and in public meetings. It was not, in fact, until the 16th century that it became common anywhere. The chest, the bench and the stool were until then the ordinary seats used in everyday living, and the number of chairs which have survived from an earlier date is exceedingly limited; most of such examples are of ecclesiastical or seigneurial origin. Our knowledge of the chairs of remote antiquity is derived almost entirely from monuments, sculpture and paintings. A few actual examples exist in the British Museum and in the Egyptian museum at Cairo.
In ancient Egypt chairs appear to have been of great richness and splendour. Fashioned of ebony and ivory, or of carved and gilded wood, they were covered with costly materials and supported upon representations of the legs of beasts or the figures of captives. Egyptians believed that the chairs need to represent natural forms to avoid creating chaos in the universe, by creating an artificial object. This tendency is seen all over Egyptian art and manufacture. An arm-chair in fine preservation found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings is astonishingly similar, even in small details, to that "Empire" style which followed Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. The earliest monuments of Nineveh represent a chair without a back but with tastefully carved legs ending in lions' claws or bulls' hoofs. Others are supported by figures in the nature of caryatides or by animals.
The earliest known form of Greek chair dates back to six or seven centuries BCE. On the frieze of the Parthenon, Zeus occupies a square seat with a bar-back and thick turned legs; it is ornamented with winged sphinxes and the feet of beasts. The characteristic Roman chairs were of marble, also adorned with sphinxes. The curule chair was originally very similar in form to the modern folding chair, but eventually received a good deal of ornament. The most famous of the very few chairs which have come down from a remote antiquity is the reputed Chair of Saint Peter in St Peter's Basilica at Rome. The wooden portions are much decayed, but it would appear to be Byzantine work of the 6th century, and to be really an ancient sedia gestatoria. It has ivory carvings representing the labours of Hercules. A few pieces of an earlier oaken chair have been let in; the existing one, Gregorovius says, is of acacia wood. The legend that this was the curile chair of the senator Pudens is necessarily apocryphal. It is not, as is popularly supposed, enclosed in Gian Lorenzo Bernini's bronze chair, but is kept under triple lock and exhibited only once in a century. Byzantium, like Greece and Rome, affected the curule form of chair, and in addition to lions’ heads and winged figures of Victory (or Nike) and dolphin-shaped arms used also the lyre-back which has been made familiar by the pseudo-classical revival of the end of the 18th century.
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