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An Epic Battle

Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011

«In a chess match, opponents simulate a battle between warring kingdoms. But, if one is to believe medieval legend, even such mock battles could provoke intense competition. According to the Icelandic St. Olaf's Saga (written about 1230), King Knut murdered a chess opponent, Jarl Ulf, in 1027 following a dispute during a match.» A twelfth-century treatise by Alexander Neckham refers to another legend in which a chess piece was hurled as a murder weapon—suggesting a piece of considerable size and weight, perhaps like this heavy ivory piece from Sicily in the Metropolitan's collection:

Ivory Bishop

Chess piece, bishop, 8th–10th century. Western Islamic Lands. Ivory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Alastair B. Martin, 1949 (49.36)

In the legend of Ogier of Denmark, also of the twelfth century, the son of Charlemagne wielded the chessboard as a weapon, killing the son of Ogier (see image).

Even when fisticuffs did not erupt, medieval chess matches provided opportunities for dramatic displays of prowess: in 1266, a Saracen chess master named Buzecca competed against three opponents simultaneously in a tournament held at the Bargello in Florence, facing two of the three contestants blindfolded. Stakes in a chess game were usually monetary (even though betting on chess matches was frowned upon by religious authorities) but, according to legend, wagers could also include the hand of a lady or a player's very life.

In today's version of the game, sixteen warriors are found on each side, their ranks representing the chess armies that were conceived in medieval Europe:

pawns     8 Pawns, on the front line
rooks     2 Rooks (also called Castles or Warders), at the edges of the King's line
knights     2 charging Knights on horseback
bishops     2 Bishops, reflecting the position of the Church as a powerful force
    and potential ally of the crown
queens     1 Queen (from the late eleventh or early twelfth century on), at the King's side
kings     1 King, at center

 

chess board

Opposing kingdoms are distinguished by color. Today's black-and-white scheme was not yet standard in medieval Europe. When they were first discovered, some of the pieces from the Lewis hoard reportedly showed traces of red, which is also the case with some medieval game pieces in the Metropolitan's collection, including this one:

Game Piece with Hercules

Game Piece with Samson Slaying the Philistines with the Jawbone of an Ass, 1140–50. German. Elephant ivory, red stain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.141)

The twelfth-century treatise On Divers Arts by a monk known as Theophilus recommends that game pieces be dyed red with madder to set them apart, while the Book of Games of Alfonso X the Wise of Spain shows players using red-and-white as well as black-and-white pieces and boards.

Book of Games

"Arabs Playing Chess," from the Book of Games (fol. 62v), by Alfonso X the Wise (1221–1284). Spain, 1283. Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial. Photo: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

In some cases, opposing pieces were distinguished by the colors of the material from which they were carved—such as rock crystal, favored in Islamic culture and also prized in Europe, or jet.

Crystal Pawn Jet Knight

Left: Chess piece, pawn or backgammon piece, 10th–11th century or later. Western Islamic Lands. Rock-crystal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Pfeiffer Fund, 1972 (1972.9.28); right: Chess piece, knight, 8th–10th century. Western Islamic Lands. Jet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Jerome A. Straka Gift, 1974 (1974.27.2)

As today, chess players in the Middle Ages brought their strategic and mathematical skills to bear as they maneuvered their warriors. Documents dated earlier than 1300 demonstrate that enthusiasts were already recording chess problems and end-game positions. In The Game of Kings exhibition at The Cloisters, the final position of a famous modern chess match is set at the center of the gallery, with the fallen pieces disposed in cases to the sides. Perhaps the chess enthusiasts among you will recognize it—come see! A later post will reveal the answer.

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About the Author

Barbara Drake Boehm is the Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, on view at The Cloisters November 15, 2011–April 22, 2012.