Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Symbolic seats of power

Chairs are providing a subtle subtext to recent national and international news.  As September progresses we'll probably see even more chairs in newspaper photos.  Last month we were treated to views of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Madrid.  The three of them sat on a platform in towering high-backed chairs with gold fringe around the seat. Those seated beside them were on lower risers and in chairs with backrests that didn't even reach their shoulders.  The size and placement of chairs served to indicate the importance of the occupants.  The Spanish monarchs distinguished their guest by offering him a chair equal in size and comfort to theirs. As with his predecessor, John Paul II, who visited Madrid in 2003, Benedict XVI was seated between the King and Queen.  Those who remember the prior visit noted a striking change:  John Paul's white chair was higher backed than that of the King and Queen's red chairs.  In contrast, Benedict's red chair was identical to the King and Queen's chairs.  Protocol officers ponder over such subtlenesses.  Was the chair an indication of Spain's increasing secularization?

During September, known as Mes de la Patria, Mexico will be fêted with avenues and buildings decorated with the colors of the flag, ephemeral displays of patriotic scenes in mosaics of tens of thousands of light bulbs, and we'll be treated to a series of festivities hosted by civic and religious powers -- and their chairs.

Whereas Mexico's northern neighbor gives more importance to the location than to the chair, in Mexico the chair is the icon of political power.   The US president's image is linked more to the Oval Office, and the building that houses it, rather than to his chair.  US Supreme Court justices sit in chairs of their own choosing, giving the Latin American visitor a sense of disarray when in their courtroom.  While legislative chambers in Washington do have matching chairs they are lacking in names for them. 

With Mexico's new legislative year getting underway this month we'll be seeing a lot of news coverage of both houses of the federal legislature as they analyze the president's Informe -- his September 1 report to Congress on the state of the nation.  Press photographers will make a point of portraying the members of Congress in their chairs.  Though the chairs in the Chamber of Deputies seem to be similar in design to those of their counterparts in the Senate, they have different names.  Federal Deputies occupy a curul, while Senators occupy an escaño (both words of Latin origin with the first referring to a chair and the latter to a bench with a backrest).  Straight-backed at a ninety-degree angle to the seat, and not particularly comfortable, they, nevertheless, convey the importance of the office.  Over and over again we’ll see photos of the curules and escanos and their occupants.  Additionally we'll see photographs of the meeting chambers allowing us to gauge attendance at the sessions by comparing occupied curules or escaños to empty ones.  

This month we'll also probably see views of the presidential chair inside the National Palace.  A high backed armchair, with the eagle as the shield of Mexico at the very top of the arched backrest; the grandest chair in Mexico is referred to simply as La Silla Presidencial.   It, more than the National Palace, is the symbol of the presidency.  Though occupied successively by presidents through Mexico's history, the most famous photograph of the chair is one taken when it was occupied during the Revolution, if only fleetingly, by one who was never president:  Pancho Villa.   Emiliano Zapata is beside him in a much simpler chair after having refused to sit in the symbolic seat of power.

On the north side of Mexico City's Zocalo lies a whole building named after a chair.  The root word for cathedral is the Latin cathedra (seat) in turn from Greek kathedra.  By definition, cathedrals house the bishop's chair, and hence the name.  In an interesting sidenote, on the 16th of this month, the Metropolitan Cathedral will host one of the most unusual of all ecclesiastical events  -- a commemorative Mass for an excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo.

The Mexican military don't have an emblematic chair.  La Silla is occupied by the commander-in-chief.  Historically, in other countries, there are renowned chairs used by famous generals -- usually elegant, easily transportable folding curules.  In the absence of chairs the president and his Secretaries of Defense and Navy will stand in the central balcony of the National Palace on the 16th of this month reviewing one of the world's grandest military parades.

Of all chairs, from thrones to figurative seats and chairs, my favorite is the simplest – a scissor legged stool with a canvas seat which my groups and I sling over our shoulders and create portable classrooms or meeting rooms out of any archeological site, park, or museum.  Magically they keep the largest group compact and avoid the inevitable problem of people leaning on walls and displays.  Best of all they extend the attention span of participants.  Interestingly the word catedra is used in Spanish to refer to imparting education; impartir catedra -- probably originating from the same idea of sitting in a curul imparting ideas to students sitting on the ground or on escaños.  Thus my simple stools are in the highest tradition of learning.  

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