Published: November 15, 2011
In 1831, a hoard of luxury goods †including more than 70 chess pieces and several other objects, all made of carved walrus ivory and dating from the Twelfth Century †was unearthed on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland. The chess pieces (thereafter known as the Lewis chessmen), which come from at least four distinct but incomplete sets, are today arguably the most famous chess pieces in the world. They are among the icons of the collections of the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Holding court through April 22 at The Cloisters †The Metropolitan Museum’s branch devoted to medieval art and architecture †more than 30 chessmen from the British Museum are included in the exhibition “The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis,” the first time such a large ensemble of the chessmen has traveled outside the United Kingdom.
The Lewis chessmen are generally believed to have been made in Norway. Stylistic similarities to sculpture point specifically to the Norwegian city of Trondheim, as does archaeological evidence of workshops for the carving of walrus ivory. At the time that the chessmen were carved, the seat of political and ecclesiastical control of the Isle of Lewis was in Norway, and shipping lanes from Norway to Ireland went past the Outer Hebrides. The Lewis hoard may represent a merchant’s wares, lost or abandoned on the isle.
Each of the pieces is a delightful sculpture in miniature, with a specific, individualized character. The kings all sit with their swords on their laps, but some have long hair and beards, and others are clean shaven. The knights wear distinct headgear, carry different shields and ride different shaggy ponies. Among the warders (rooks), who are represented as foot soldiers, one bites the top of his shield, barely containing his frenzied eagerness for battle. Scholars have identified such figures as berserkers (the soldiers of Odin from Norse mythology), known from the Heimskringla †the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway †of the poet Snorri Sturluson (circa 1179‱241).
The exhibition at The Cloisters, in the center of the Romanesque Hall, is in the form of the endgame of a famous chess match. The fallen pieces, organized by type, are displayed in auxiliary cases along the edges of the room. Examples of medieval chessmen from the Metropolitan’s main building are displayed nearby.
The game of chess is believed to have originated in India in the Sixth Century CE, and to have spread west first through Persia, and then through the Islamic territories, until it reached Europe. As played today, chess is an important legacy of the Middle Ages. The Lewis chessmen are among the earliest examples in which both bishops and queens are found. Although they are now all white, some of the Lewis chessmen were stained red, according to an early report.
The exhibition is accompanied by a book, The Lewis Chessmen , by James Robinson, curator of late medieval collections, department of prehistory and Europe, at the British Museum. The book will be available in the Metropolitan’s book shops.
The Cloisters is at Fort Tryon Park, 99 Margaret Corbin Drive. For information, www.metmuseum.org or 212-923-3700.
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