Merovingian Things 2: The Throne of Dagobert

Dagobert
The throne/ chair of Dagobert

The bronze throne of Dagobert is one of the most famous images of the Merovingian period. As a folding chair, it speaks of continuity with Roman administrative authority, as it is modelled on the sella curulis often used by magistrates.[1] The use of bronze and the ?leopard decorations gives it more visual power than that. It has been augmented and repaired several times since the ninth century, sometimes rather poorly, giving it a rather clumsy appearance. Originally, it probably only consisted of the legs and cross (with appropriate cushions and extra decorations).

Its association with Dagobert I is almost certainly anachronistic. The most generous modern art-historical analysis of the throne, by Konrad Weidemann, placed the throne at best in the middle of the seventh century, after Dagobert’s death in 639. (Although not, of course, after Dagobert II (d. 679) or Dagobert III (d. 715)). Some prefer a date a century later.

The earliest reference to connecting the chair to Dagobert is by Abbot Suger of St Denis (d. 1151). In his Liber de rebus administratione sua gestis. He wrote:

We also restored the noble throne of the glorious King Dagobert, on which, as tradition relates, the Frankish kings sat to receive the homage of their nobles after they had assumed power. We did so in recognition of its exalted function and because of the value of the work itself.

Suger was particularly interested in Dagobert as the patron founder of the basilica of St Denis, where the king himself was later buried. People may also have known the story told in the Vita Eligii of how St Eligius had made two golden thrones for the king out of the gold supplied to him to make one. Whether Frankish kings actually ever received ‘homage’ sitting in the chair, who knows. It probably says more about Suger’s expectations of kingship than Merovingian practice.

The chair briefly had great symbolic value under Napoleon I. He and his advisors looked back to the ‘first dynasty of France’ for an imagery and mystique of authority that went beyond that of the House of Bourbon. In August 1804, Baron Denon had the chair taken to Boulogne so that Napoleon could sit on it as part of a ceremony in which he awarded some of the first medals of the Legion of Honour. Philippe-Auguste Hennequin, a painter and eyewitness, wrote:

Scarcely was Napoleon seated in the bronze chair that they had carried from the library to the camp when the sky cleared up, the clouds divided and let a ray of light escape that fell on the trophy behind the emperor and distinguished the flags of all the nations conquered by the French armies.

The chair, for a moment, had quasi-supernatural powers and was a symbol of empire.

Hennequin
Hennequin’s painting of Napoleon at Boulogne in 1804 (with chair)

Given that we otherwise know very little about the chair, it is important to remember that it is often interpreted or encountered through the highly political readings left by Suger and by Napoleon’s followers. It might not technically even be a Merovingian chair, but Suger’s comments about ‘tradition’ have determined otherwise. As so often, history is an accumulation of meanings, not a simple window onto the past.

 

Starter reading: Les tempes mérovingiens (Paris, 2016), no. 4.

 

[1] Other uses and contexts were available.