Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Chess Set

Object Name:
Chess set
12th century
Attributed to Iran, Nishapur
Stonepaste; molded and glazed
Largest piece (King) H. 2 in. 5.5 cm Diam. 2 1/8 in. (4.4 cm) Small piece (pawn) H. 3.3 cm. Diam. 2.9 cm
Gaming pieces
Credit Line:
Pfeiffer Fund, 1971
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 453
This nearly complete chess set is one of the earliest extant examples in the world. The pieces are abstract forms: the shah (king) is represented as a throne; the vizier (the equivalent of the queen) is a smaller throne; the elephant (bishop) has two tusklike protrusions; the horse (knight) has a triangular knob representing its head; the chariot (rook) is rectangular with a wedge at the top; and the pawns are faceted hemispheres with knobs.
Literary tradition attributes the origin of chess to northern India. By the late Sasanian period the game had been introduced into Iran. One of the tales preserved in the Persian national epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings), explains the invention of chess as a way of demonstrating to a grieving queen the battle in which one of her sons died opposing his brother. Another recounts how the game was introduced to Iran: the ruler of India sent a set of chess pieces with an envoy as a challenge, declaring that his continued payment of tribute depended on the ability of the Iranian king to decode the point of the game. While these legends underscore the courtly roots of chess, other sources demonstrate that the game gained popularity at all levels of society in the medieval Islamic world.

This is one of the earliest extant chess sets, and it is nearly complete. The pieces are molded of stonepaste and finished by hand. Seventeen of them are coated with the turquoise glaze frequently employed in monochrome-glazed ceramics of Seljuq Iran; the other fifteen pieces are glazed with manganese. The individual pieces are highly abstracted versions of the figures to which they refer. The shah (king) is represented as a large throne and the firzan or vizier (in European chess, the queen) as a smaller throne. The fil (elephant, which became the bishop) has a circular base and a flattened top from which two protrusions recall the animal’s tusks. The faras (horse, the knight) has a circular base with a triangular knob representing the head. The rukh (chariot, the equivalent of the rook or castle) has a rectangular base with an inverted wedge at the top. The pawns are faceted domical forms surmounted by small knobs. The near-abstraction of these forms was not a recent development, as it is evident in the earliest dated chess pieces firmly attributed to the Islamic world, a group of similarly shaped ivory examples excavated at Nishapur, dating as early as the ninth century

Ellen Kenney (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
[ Saeed Motamed, Frankfurt, until 1971; sold to MMA]
Mexico City. Colegio de San Ildefonso. "Arte islamico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York," September 30, 1994–January 8, 1995, no. 46.

New York. Asia Society. "Asian Games: The Art of Contest," October 14, 2004–January 18, 2005, no. 12:16.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rumi," October 15, 2007–March 5, 2008, no catalogue.

Swietochowski, Marie, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Notable Acquisitions 1965–1975 (1975). p. 145, ill. (b/w).

Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn, Suzanne G. Valenstein, and Julia Meech-Pekarik. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Oriental Ceramics: The World's Great Collections. vol. 12. Tokyo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977. ill. pl. 258.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daniel S. Walker, Arturo Ponce Guadián, Sussan Babaie, Stefano Carboni, Aimee Froom, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Tomoko Masuya, Annie Christine Daskalakis-Matthews, Abdallah Kahil, and Rochelle Kessler. "Colegio de San Ildefonso, Septiembre de 1994-Enero de 1995." In Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994. no. 46, pp. 136-137, ill. p. 137 (b/w).

Carboni, Stefano. "Chessmen in the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Scacchi e Scienze Applicate suppl. no. 7, fasc. 15 (1996). ill. p. 4 (b/w).

Mackenzie, Colin, and Irving Finkel, ed. Asian Games The Art of Contest. New York: Asia Society, 2004. no. 12:16, p. 151, ill. (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 70, pp. 112-113, ill. p. 112 (color).

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