Some time ago a client came to me asking for a chair that had providence from Northern England circa 7th Century. She wanted something that would be in the Danelaw (which didn’t quite exist yet) and wanted some Celtic Style Knotwork carved on it. When it came to the knotwork designs, there was bupkiss on extant furniture. Pulling on my resources for that era, there really was only one chair close – the Chair of the Venerable Bede. The next closest extant chair, ethnically and temporally, is the chair from the Queen Ana burial (Oseberg, 9th Century).
The Bede Chair was originally of white or brown oak, quarter sawn or riven in great slabs. We can tell this by the ray-flecks from the Q/S grain visible in some of the clearer color images. The chair has sustained significant damage through the centuries. Thus comes the first conundrum: Figuring out what it looked like originally. Well, I did some cross checking and came up with two possible reconstructions of the original as it was intended.
The image on the left is closer to the extant as it exists currently. To the right, an appearance more in line with clerical chairs as indicated by illuminated and ikonographic evidence. There are indications that the remaining elements of the frame supported a curtain rail, which is not uncommon in ecclesiastical furniture during the Romanesque and Gothic Periods. Though the compound curve as evidenced on the near arms is generally unknown until the 12th century in Western Europe, the sloping arm and tapering top are not dissimilar to the arms of the contemporaneous Dagobert Throne.
The compound curved arm is not mathematically complementary, as an Ogee
Curve might be. There is also the similarity to Lombard Architectural forms of the 5th-8th centuries. None of these are considered “close” to Northumbria in the 7th Century, however the similarity of style remains indicative of a standardized tradition.
The solid panel “left arm” as seen in the image to the right is more in keeping with graphical representations of scribes at work. In what few illuminated manuscripts we have from the era and as in religious ikons from the Hellenic Roman Empire, it is not uncommon to see persons famed for their wisdom or literacy seated at work in such chairs which have a rest for the right arm and a solid wall to the left. Whether this is intended that the left arm be placed against a wall, or that this might create something akin to a modern cubicle is conjecture. However, having now made a chair with the arm style as found in the first image, I can report anecdotally of the utility of the design leaning toward being that of a work-station. Utilitas, Venustas, Firmitas, as Vitruvius demanded.
The true rub comes into play when we look more fully into the related extant and pictoral examples. While present, such forms are extremely rare until the 12th century, and then ubiquitous in the 13th through 15th centuries. Such paucity of contemporary examples has led some scholars to believe the “Chair of the Venerable Bede” to be a 14th Century forgery. Citing specifically the peculiarities of the design and execution of the original, it was strongly suggested that this chair was made sometime in the mid-1300’s to enhance the prestige of the small church which houses the piece (and of which gains no small bit of fame due to Bede’s legendary notoriety). The claim of forgery was challenged, rather than supported, by dendrochronological testing on the extant piece. These tests indicated the oak used in the construction of the chair were felled in the middle of the 600s CE.
Counter-counter argument was subsequently made that the wood may have been reused from an original church pew in creating the forgery. As further explanations to support the belief of a forgery persist, it becomes less plausibly a forgery from the 14th century, and merely a 7th century oddity.