How did the Throne Develop as a Royal Symbol?
The throne has been a type of royal furniture that has often been associated with the very nature of monarchy. A monarch's authority is often symbolized through the throne and how elaborate or sometimes simple the throne may be has come to symbolize the country in which they rule. While modern government in the West has eschewed monarchy, the throne still retains an important symbolic power that also has religious and other cultural connotations.
Early Thrones and Cultures
From the very first evidence of the establishment of royal authority we begin to see a throne or idea of a raised seat depicted in royal imagery. Both in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, depictions of thrones are shown soon after those regions developed royal power. The throne was not just a raised seat but also was placed into a special room, the throne room, where royalty began to receive and meet with foreigners and subjects alike. Thrones were already decorated, often made with ebony, cedar, and gilded with gold or even ivory. Thrones also became raised, to show the status of the king. Often a large stone slab or platform was used to raise the seat. For Egypt, this was particularly important because the king (or pharaoh) was also a god and being raised indicated the divine nature of authority.
For deities, they also became associated as seated figures who resided in special houses (or temples). Sometimes these deities were represented as statues placed in a niche but often they were also represented as seated figures who sat on a throne of authority. In particular, deities associated with monarchs, such as the sun god, were more typically seated, where they would be shown imparting wisdom on rulers to govern their people. This concept is also in the Bible , where Yahweh is described as seated on a throne.
What is telling about thrones is that they were common as soon as regions began to develop the idea of kings and royal authority. Few other pieces of furniture became so common throughout much of the ancient world. In ancient China, chairs were classified and associated with classes of people who could sit on certain chairs. Thrones in China, like many other regions, began to be named, with the latest name used was the Dragon Throne, where the name lasted until the last Qing Dynasty emperor rules in the early 20th century. In India, the ancient name for the throne was the seat of the lion. Similar to China, it was intricately decorated and was only associated with royal authority.
Europe's oldest throne room is found at the palace of Knossos, a city in Crete that existed in the 2nd millennium BCE. Similar to the ancient Near East, the idea of a throne room was also meant to not only have the raised chair and platform where the king would receive people but wall decorations of griffins, which also became symbols of royal power in the Mediterranean and stretching to Central Asia. At Knossos, the throne also was surrounded by benches, which were possibly used by the king's council. Thus, thrones also became to symbolize a type of court where council would be given to the king. Later, the idea of a parliament retained this idea, where a king would receive council sitting on a raised throne.
Thrones were also independently used in the New World. Aztec gods, such as Ehecatl, were shown as seated on thrones. An elaborate throne in Tenochtitlan was found, called the throne of Montezuma, which was used for religious and royal ceremony. The Aztec king likely sat on it to perform his religious duties where he made contact with the earth and sun, acting as the sacred guardian of both these important symbols of religious authority.
Taking the idea of royal and religious thrones, when Christianity developed it was seen that both high priests, such as bishops or the pope, had authority to sit on thrones as well as kings. In effect, the close nature and symbolism shared between royal and heavenly power led to similar displays developed in cathedrals, churches, and palaces. European royal thrones, however, developed into more simple designs in contrast to earlier periods or from the royal thrones in Asia (e.g., China or India). Initially in Europe, kings tried to fashion themselves as continuing the traditions of Rome. Royal thrones became more simple as a sign of respect to religious authority and God.
As royal thrones generally became simple in decoration in Europe, religious ones became more elaborate. Bishop thrones in cathedrals or eastern Orthodox thrones, in particular, became gilded with gold and elaborately decorated. The raised platforms, similar to royal thrones, began to symbolize the religious authority figures such as bishops and popes had. In fact, the elaborate nature of thrones became one of the issues that the Reformation decried against.
However, by the later Medieval era, some European states began to not only become more wealth but the simple thrones and regalia were updated to reflect growing power. One of the more elaborately decorated thrones was that of Ivan the Terrible, who ruled in the 16th century. Ivan was known as a megalomaniac king and lavished his own power greatly. In effect, his throne continued the millennia long tradition of thrones reflecting the type of power royal authorities wanted to display, even when that display shifted from more humble depictions to one of showing more grandeur.