Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Symbolism of the Empty Chair

British newspapers have now turned "empty chair" into a verb.

The intention appears to be to go ahead with the election debates, without the Prime Minister but with an empty chair (or podium) to draw attention to his absence. Similar gestures have been used in the United States.


When Pope Francis failed to turn up to a Vatican concert in June 2013, a few months after his election, a white chair was left prominently on display.

Pope Francis's now famous empty chair (AP)

Commentators were quick to speculate about the meaning and motivation of the empty chair. Writing in the Catholic Herald, William Oddie wondered whether the incident indicated a curial conspiracy against the Pope. "How come that photo of the empty chair became, and so quickly, such an 'enigma'? How did it get itself plastered all over the Italian media? Why, as soon as it was known that the Pope wasn’t coming, wasn’t the chair simply removed?"

In Catholic circles, of course, the term "empty chair" (in Latin, Sede Vacante) has special redolence, as it indicates the interval between two popes. Some anti-modernists (known as Sedevacantists) deny the legitimacy of recent popes, claiming that the Holy See has been sede vacante at least since the death of John XXIII in 1963, if not earlier. Perhaps the Vatican Curia was consciously or unconsciously making a point.

Likewise, there are undoubtedly members or former members of the British Conservative Party who detest the current prime minister, and regard the party and country as being essentially without a genuine conservative leader since the demise of Margaret Thatcher. For such people, an empty chair at the election debates would have extra significance.


Maier, Vivian. “New York, NY.” Street 2. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
<http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/street-2/#slide-34>.



Clint Eastwood defends 'empty chair' convention speech (BBC News, 10 September 2012)

Andy Borowitz, POLL: Romney trails empty chair (New Yorker, 31 August 2012)

William Oddie, How come that empty papal chair has become so widely interpreted as symbolic, even sinister? Is this part of a curial anti-Francis conspiracy? (Catholic Herald, 26 June 2013)

Tanisha Randhawa, Vivian Maier and [Nothingness] (19 October 2014) 

Wikipedia: Sede Vacante, Sedevacantism


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