The Vesting of the Episcopal Throne

Talk of liturgical textiles and the mind naturally turns toward vestments first and foremost. Secondarily, the more liturgically attuned might also find their minds turning toward the antependium, or altar frontal. However, another lesser known set of liturgical 'paraments' are those which traditionally covered the throne of the bishop of a diocese.

Before we speak of that, first a word about the throne itself. The throne is to be made of some becoming material such as stone or wood (and we can also find historical examples in ivory) and as it came to develop, it would eventually develop into a high-backed chair with arms, set up upon a platform of three steps that was set higher than the choir stalls but not higher than the footpace of the high altar -- thus ensuring the proper visual hierarchy of altar, bishop and the choir were visible. Of course, it is worth noting that in earlier times, the arrangement of the throne in relation to the altar was not quite the same as can yet be witnessed in many of the earlier basilicas that can be found in Rome and elsewhere in other parts of Europe. In these instances it might be as high as or even high than the footpace of the altar, typically being set at the back of the apse, possibly surrounded by a synthronon where the more senior clergy would sit, rather than in the choir. 

Returning to the liturgical ornaments that came to placed on and around the throne, it was marked with such honour by virtue of the fact that it symbolized both the authority of the bishop and his teaching office. 

So what were these ornaments? Traditionally, bishops thrones were covered by a canopy -- a feature mentioned by St. Augustine as early as the fifth century -- and from early on the throne itself was also covered as a mark of distinction. The canopy was square/rectangular and broad enough to cover not only the bishop and his throne, but also the assistant ministers to the throne, who would be seated upon stools to either side. Frequently one would find placed upon these canopies the arms of the bishop:

Detail of the episcopal stemma on a throne canopy
A larger view of the outer front portion of the same canopy

While the stemma shown here is in a central position, it is worth noting that, according to Roman custom, these are usually placed on the corners. What's more, in addition to the actual canopy itself, a drapery backing -- called a dorsal -- of the same fabric would also hang down behind the throne itself, going down to ground level and here too in a central position was generally placed the stemma of the bishop. 

The colour of this canopy would (ideally) be aligned to the liturgical colour of the Mass at pontifical functions. It should be noted however, that this canopy for the throne was never to be more ornate than the canopy which covered the altar as the throne should not be perceived as being given a higher dignity than the altar itself. Here are a few examples showing the canopy and throne aligned to the liturgical colour of the pontifical liturgical occasion:

In addition to this, the bishop's throne itself was also covered with a silk covering and cushion that was in the liturgical colour of the pontifical liturgical function. Outside of pontifical liturgical functions proper, the throne would be draped in the colour of the rank of the prelate whose throne it was (i.e. red or green) or during penitential times and times it would be vested in violet (much like the prelate himself).  The only exception to this rule of the throne being vested in the liturgical colour of the day was, as is typically the case, black. At Requiem Masses violet would instead be used, while on Good Friday the throne, like the altar itself, was stripped of these ornaments -- once again showing the consistency in the application of these traditional ceremonial principles and liturgical signs.

An example of a pontifical throne covered -- though outside of its proper context please note.

Strictly speaking it is said that only the throne covers of cardinals may be ornamented in gold, but it must be said that this is one of those rules that seems to have been quite commonly disregarded in practice.

As far as the steps on which the throne were places were concerned, these too would generally be carpeted in either red or green depending on the rank of the prelate in question, though here again, this was more of an ideal in practice.

From a practical perspective, how they were constructed would depend in great part on the particular throne itself, however these high, rounded backed type were certainly frequently seen and they were frequently constructed in pieces that would connect together by ties, attaching the facing piece with the side pieces as follows:

In other instances, they might be created as single pieces, like slip covers, though clearly this would be the more difficult construction of the two:

As for the canopies themselves, their construction is reasonably simple, being a square or rectangular overhanging piece attached to a frame, much like a processional canopy, with the dorsal attaching to the same, hanging flat down the back. 

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