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War Games

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

Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2012

«Allusions to chess appear frequently in the news these days. Alas, these pertain not to art, but rather to what is sometimes perversely called the "art" of war. One recent editorial refers to the excruciating "game of regional chess over Syrian tragedy" (New Age, March 6, 2012, online edition). Another editorial, in The Huffington Post, was entitled "Syria: Three-Level Chess Game" (February 8, 2012).» On February 23, The Los Angeles Times specifically mentioned chess in a description of the impact of shelling on the everyday lives of Syrian townspeople:

The second round, a loud boom from a Russian-made armored vehicle, sent everyone scrambling. Shopkeepers shuttered their storefronts with metal grates, elderly men abandoned their sidewalk chess match.

This description struck me immediately, as it stands in stark contrast to a lyrical photograph in the Metropolitan's collection:

Men Playing Chess

[Men Playing Chess, Damascus], 1888. Albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. John L. Swayze, 1981 (1981.1194.27)

One senses that this match, dated 1888, could go on forever, without a break in interest or attention. The three men are seated on the ground, their heads covered, their shoes off. The eldest of the three is making his move; his opponent seems somehow to respect his seniority and expertise. The third, and youngest, merely watches, pondering the strategy at work. The board is somewhat damaged, the pieces nondescript, but none of that matters. The players appear oblivious to the world beyond their chessboard, and, while the game they are playing pits one player against another, it is, after all, only a game. There is a peaceful silence all around, and the gathering of men at this chessboard feels almost sacramental.

Tag(s): chess, Syria
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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.