Ever since I was just a child, I’ve always been strongly disinclined to throw out the old, the used, the outmoded and the historic. Whether it’s the finest partywear of dear departed ancestors, old oriental rugs, fond mementos of travels from days long past, a porcelain serving platter – sole survivor of a service chipped and shattered over the years – old wooden pencil cases, pot-holders, herbariums or pearl-beaded evening bags, it makes no difference. Among this cornucopia of old objects that by and by acquired the status of inherited property, it was easy to choose what you wanted to keep. Back then there were also all those attics, lofts and cellars to browse through. Places full of extra chairs patiently waiting to come in handy one day, and spare fold-up beds (“Z beds” as we used to call them), stored out of sight under the roof; big “America chests” with drapes and curtains drenched in moth-proofing agent; hand-woven cushion covers and porcelain chamber pots with their painted floral garlands or lines of text – “Mir steht der Himmel offen” – often with a matching washbasin and pitcher.
But when I was young, it was always the chairs that attracted my greatest interest. The fact that they also evoked so many memories of former times was, of course, an extra bonus.
Just the other day I heard that the 22-year-old pole vaulter Armand Duplantis was asked what his first purchase was, when he moved into an apartment of his own. His answer? A chair.
Some chairs are chairs of office or ceremonial seats – chairs whose special appearance is indicative of a particular profession or a specific ceremony.
This handsome chair is indubitably of venerable age and in a style I might venture to call Renaissance-Baroque, as it shares characteristics of both genres. A chair of office, perhaps? My word, just think of everything it must have experienced over the centuries in which it has resided in the heart of Europe! There’s no harm in letting your imagination run away with you now and again.
The photographs of this splendid chair were sent to me from Spain, which has been its home for many a long year. At a guess, I’d say that was where it was made, too. However, endeavouring to conduct a thorough inspection of a chair from photographs alone is far from an optimal procedure. What do I know of components that have been replaced, details that have been repainted, or an upholstered seat that seems almost new? So let me instead allow free rein to my intuition and hope that some of the information I have to share can cast light on one or two aspects of interest.
The chair stands in Monda, a village around 15 minutes’ drive from Marbella. Today the chair enjoys the status of something akin to a museum exhibit in a hotel housed in what once was a medieval stronghold, perched high on a hill with breathtaking views over the surrounding countryside.
The crest on the backrest of the chair, with its double eagle and coat of arms, may hark back to the House of Habsburg. The escutcheon with lions and crenellated towers in the upper left quarter may attest to the fact that Spain formed part of the Habsburg Empire at the time this chair was made in the early 1600s.
The double-headed eagle is a common symbol that dignifies the national coats of arms and flags of around a dozen countries.
But have you noticed the feet on this chair? Two faces whose wide-eyed gaze is fixed firmly on whoever is standing in front. And for anyone seated on the chair who cares to look at the feet from a different angle, those big see-all eyes are there again. Food for thought, surely. Legs that terminate in great lion paws are not uncommon on chairs from the Baroque, but faces with those huge, glowering eyes … Are they a later addition, perhaps? And if so, what was their purpose? It’s more than a little creepy, don’t you think?
A richly carved stretcher between the front legs bears the unmistakable stamp of Baroque ornamentation – volutes and acanthus leaves; and, at its middle, a medallion displaying a male head in profile, topped with a military helmet. If you ask me, details as well-worked as these are a tell-tale sign that this was some form of ceremonial chair. A chair on which far from everyone was entitled to take a seat. The helmet looks much like those worn by certain Spanish soldiers in the late 1500s and early 1600s.
The backrest, fashioned in part from embossed leather, has been fitted to the wooden frame with the aid of round brass tacks or clavos. I can only assume that the seat was formerly constructed in similar fashion. The rather timeworn shield in the centre of the backrest displays the coat of arms of Monda.
Beside this grand chair stands a similar one, also proudly displaying Monda’s coat of arms. When seen side by side, the latter projects what I perceive to be a slightly more feminine image. No helmeted warrior, no disconcerting faces on the feet, no carved escutcheon. Instead, several rows of neatly sculpted rosettes and a simple wooden seat. The arms, fashioned to turn inwards at the extremities, also contribute to the slightly more slender silhouette. No room for any of those voluminous seventeenth-century male knee breeches here, thank you very much!
Less problematic and more romantic is the legend that has long been associated with this ancient Spanish castle. In 1485 General Hurtado de Mendoza y Luna became the first Christian mayor of Monda. The general had a daughter of exceptional beauty called Beatriz, who was known as la Buena Villeta. The mayor in nearby Tolox had a handsome son, Arturo, who fell in love with Beatriz and she with him.
The two lovers used to meet in the castle at Monda, but one day Arturo had sad news to share with his beloved Beatriz. His father had ordered him to accompany him to America, the New World. Arturo picked a sprig of almond blossom from a tree in the castle gardens and gave it to Beatriz as a token of their enduring love. And then he was gone.
The flower continued to bloom for many months and the beautiful Beatriz took this as a sign that all was well with Arturo. But alas, one day the flower Arturo had picked withered, as did all the others on the tree, and blood began to trickle from the faded petals.
Convinced that this was a sign that her lover had somehow lost his life, grief-stricken Beatriz collapsed and died on the spot. That, so the legend goes, is why to this very day the almond blossom on the trees in and around Monda has a reddish hue, and why the restless soul of poor Beatriz still walks the walls and rooms of Monda Castle at night.
This pot-pourri of assumptions, legends, question marks and uncertain dates may pave the way for us to lend some credence to the legend of the heartbroken Beatriz. Does she perhaps rest now and again in one of the chairs, as she walks the castle her father once owned? And, who knows, maybe her darling Arturo even sits on the chair next to hers. After all, walking the grounds night after night for 500 years and more is far from impossible in the realm of legends.
By Gun Bjerkander Handberg
Note from Editor:
A new website, created by our publishers Vind & Våg Publishing, launched in August and is the now the official home of all three of the Please Be Seated books.
It will soon also be the place to pre-order our fourth publication, launching later this year, which will be an anthology of some of our favourite tales from the blog.
The website has a bookshop where you will find a special bundle offer of all three books from the series, so if you can’t decide which publication to choose, why not enjoy all three!