The Mystery of the Marble Man and his Hat: A Reconsideration of the Bari Episcopal Throne

The Mystery of the Marble Man and his Hat: A Reconsideration of the Bari Episcopal Throne

Rowan W. Dorin

Florilegium, Volume 25 (2008)


For nearly nine hundred years, an imposing throne has stood in the central apse of the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari (Fig. 1). Sculpted from a single block of white marble, it is widely considered to be one of the finest achievements of Italian Romanesque sculpture. Unlike so many other medieval masterpieces, it has largely escaped the ravages of time, with only minor damage testifying to its continual use over almost a millennium. It stands today, as it has for much of its history, largely hidden from view by the basilica’s imposing twelfth-century ciborium — perhaps a symbolically appropriate fate for an object whose complexities have defied generations of schol- ars. After almost a century of sustained art historical analysis, the throne’s dating has become only increasingly controversial, its craftsmanship more debated, its iconographic programme less certainly understood.

Although the throne was expressly intended for a liturgical purpose, it bears few traces of the religious iconography that one might expect. Instead, the most striking feature of the throne is its intense aura of raw authority. Close inspection reveals that the throne is not devoid of Christian symbols: a bas-relief band on the front edge of the seat depicts a griffin, a lion, a pelican, a sphinx, a calf, and a heraldic eagle, all of which were used in Eastern Christian iconography.

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