Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Chess Piece in the Form of a Knight

ca. 1350–75
Western European, possibly British
Ivory (elephant)
H. 2 13/32 in. (6.1 cm); L. 2 3/4 in. (6.4 cm); W. 5/8 in. (1.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Pfeiffer Fund, 1968
Accession Number:
Not on view
This remarkably detailed ivory chessman––the solitary survivor of an otherwise vanished set––provides a rare representation of a complete late-fourteenth-century armor for both man and horse. Moreover, it appears to be one of the earliest of such depictions sculptured fully in the round to survive from before the sixteenth century.

The armor of both man and horse can be dated to the second half of the fourteenth century. That of the man-at-arms consists of a visored bascinet with a mail neck protection (aventail), a mail shirt with long sleeves, and further plate armor for the hands (gauntlets of so-called hourglass shape), knees (poleyns), and the lower leg (greaves). The figure is further protected by an early form of horseman's shield called a targe. A large sword, known as a "great sword" or "war sword," is suspended at his left side, while his right hand formerly held a lance resting in front of the saddle bow; only the lower part of the lance survives.

The most notable element of the bard is the large shaffron, which encompasses the entire head of the animal and is shaped with a distinct medial ridge. The shaffron extends from behind the skill to the point of the muzzle, where it is embossed over the nostrils and pierced for ventilation. The area of the ears is too worn to reveal any defense, but the eyes are protected by cuplike guards. A stepped line at either side of the head suggests that the large main plate is connected by hinges to further plates protecting the underside of the horse's lower jaw. The shaffron is extended at the back by two crinet lames that appear to encircle the neck completely. A full mail bard, or trapper, protects the lower neck, chest, and hindquarters and originally extended to the animal's knee and hock, respectively (the legs are now missing). On top of this mail trapper, the horse wears four panels. The first, shaped like a peytral, is suspended from the base of the neck across the chest; a square panel at either side of the hindquarters and a shield-shaped one across the rear, completely concealing the tail, are suspended from a system of straps across the croup. These panels, the front and side ones with a dagged lower edge, presumably are made from textile, hardened leather, or textile covering such leather. Serving as both additional protection and adornment, they were probably painted or embroidered with the rider's coat of arms.

The lack of plate armor for the man's torso and arms, or of a textile covering for his body, is unusual for the late fourteenth century, but representations of this particular type of shaffron shown here can be found from the last half of the fouteenth century until at least the second decade of the fifteenth. The shaffron's cuplike eye guards, however, together with the lack of plate armor for the rider and the fact that mail trappers went out of use rapidly after the beginning of the fifteenth century, argue for dating this chessman to the last quarter of the fourteenth century.
Ex Coll.: Rev. John Eagles, Bristol; Victor Gay, Paris; John Hunt, Dublin.
New York. The Cloisters Museum & Gardens. "The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages," March 29–June 3, 1975.

Demmin, August. Ergänzungsband für die vier Auflagen der Kriegswaffen in ihren geschichtlichen Entwicklungen, eine Encyclopädie der Waffenkunde. Vol. 1. Weisbaden, p. 77, ill.

"Ancient Chess-Men, With Some Remarks on Their Value as Illustrations of Medieval Costume." The Archaeological Journal 3 (1846). pp. 239–245, figs. 5, 6.

Hewitt, John. Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe: from the Iron Period of the Northern Nations to the End of the Seventeenth Century. Vol. II: The Fourteenth Century. Oxford and London: John Henry Parker, 1860. pp. 314–215, pl. XLVIII.

Boeheim, Wendelin. Handbuch der Waffenkunde: das Waffenwesen in seiner historischen Entwickelung vom Beginn des Mittelalters bis zum Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts. Seemanns Kunstgewerbliche Handbücher, Vol. 7. Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 1890. p. 215, fig. 238.

Ffoulkes, Charles J. Armour and Weapons. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909. p. 88, fig. 39.

Dean, Bashford. Handbook of Arms and Armor: European and Oriental, Including the William H. Riggs Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Gilliss Press, January 1915. pl. XIII.

Laking, Guy Francis, Sir, Charles Alexander Cosson, and Francis Henry Cripps-Day. A Record of European Armour and Arms through Seven Centuries. Vol. 3. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1920. p. 150, fig. 956.

Ffoulkes, Charles J., and Sir John William Fortescue. "Medieval Arms and Warfare: the Implements and Methods of War from the Norman Times to the Introduction of Firearms." Harmsworth's Universal History of the World 27 (1928). p. 2931.

Dean, Bashford, and Robert T. Nichol. Handbook of Arms and Armor: European and Oriental, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Stephen V. Grancsay. 4th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 1930. pp. 68–70, fig. 34.

Nickel, Helmut. "Sir Gawayne and the Three White Knights." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 28, no. 4 (December 1969). pp. 174-182, ill. p. 174 and figs. 4–5 and 8–10.

The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1975. p. 211, no. 218, ill.

Nickel, Helmut. "Arms and Armor." In The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1965–1975. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975. p. 42, ill.

"Gepanzerte Pferde: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Roßharnischs mit einem Verzeichnis der Bestände der Dresdner Rüstkammer.." Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden (1994–1995). p. 15, fig. 17.

Laking, Guy Francis, Charles Alexander Cosson, Francis Henry Cripps-Day, and Claude Blair. A Record of European Armour and Arms Through Seven Centuries. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Ken Trotman Ltd., 2000. p. 150, fig. 956.

Pyhrr, Stuart W., Donald J. La Rocca, and Dirk H. Breiding. The Armored Horse in Europe, 1480–1620. New York; New Haven, 2005. p. 30, cat. no. 1, ill.

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