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Stories in Game of Kings

Carving Out a Collection

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

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012

Chess Piece of a Bishop and plaster copy

With the purchase of the Lewis Chessmen in 1831, the British Museum created, overnight, the single-most important collection of medieval chess pieces in the world, its holdings rivaled only by the Cabinet des médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, which houses the famed "Charlemagne" chessmen. So rich is the treasure from the Isle of Lewis that the British Museum was able to lend enough pieces to re-create a famous chess game for our current exhibition while retaining a substantial number of pieces on display in London.

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Madden's Moves

James Robinson, Curator of Late Medieval Collections, Department of Prehistory and Europe, The British Museum

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012

Madden's Moves

Sir Frederic Madden (1801–1873), the man who orchestrated the purchase of the Lewis Chessmen, was one of the most accomplished curators in the history of the British Museum and Library (which were linked from 1753 to 1973). Madden first worked at the library in 1826 on the classified catalogue of printed books. His brilliance as a reader of medieval scripts and his great knowledge of manuscripts saw him rise to Assistant Keeper in 1828 before taking up the keepership of the Department of Manuscripts in 1837.

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All Set

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

Posted: Tuesday, January 10, 2012

All Set

For centuries, chess sets have been crafted from a wide range of materials. The Metropolitan's collection of chess pieces, numbering in the hundreds, ranges geographically from Persia to the United States, and chronologically from as early as the eighth to the twentieth century.

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Let the Games Begin

Emma Wegner, Assistant Museum Educator, The Cloisters

Posted: Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Let the Games Begin

Last Wednesday, The Cloisters hosted a chess tournament for fifty New York City elementary and junior high school students, organized by Chess-in-the-Schools. The students came from four public schools: East Side Community School, PS 226X, PS 279X, and PS 145M, all of which have active chess teams. We chose the date of the event to coincide with the first day of our two-day December Family Festival, which offered chess-themed gallery workshops for visitors ages four through twelve. Between games, several of the chess players participated in the self-guided Art Hunt that was offered as part of the Family Festival.

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Horsing Around

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

Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2011

Horsing Around

Long forelocks falling over the eyes, groomed manes, tails that reach to the ground, and a short, stocky frame distinguish the horses ridden by the Knights of the Lewis Chessmen. They seem to resemble today's Icelandic horses. I spoke to Heleen Heyning, a breeder of Icelandic horses at West Winds Farm in upstate New York. She immediately saw the resemblance between the Lewis horses and her own. She noted that Icelandic horses were known across Scandinavia in the Viking area and are thought to have been introduced to Iceland about the year 800. For the last thousand years—that is, since before the Lewis Chessmen were carved—there has been no crossbreeding of Icelandic horses. Therefore, the resemblance we see is not accidental.

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Armed to the Teeth

Dirk H. Breiding, Assistant Curator, Department of Arms and Armor; and Michelle Jubin, Intern, Department of Arms and Armor

Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chessmen

Knights from the Lewis group embody the visual ideal of a knight on horseback: a mounted warrior, protected by armor and shield, and armed with a sword and a spear, or lance. The Rooks (also known as Warders), rendered as battle-ready infantry, show very similar equipment (excluding the lance).

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From Tusk to Treasure: Part II

Pete Dandridge, Conservator and Administrator, The Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation

Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tusk Chessmen

As I discussed in last week's post, the first step in the creation of these ivory sculptures was for the artist to establish the conceptual placement of each chess piece within the tusk, allowing for each distinct section of ivory to be cut out. The bottom sides of several chessmen retain the parallel marks of successive saw cuts often interspersed with the less regular cuts of chisels and files used to flatten and refine the base. The underside of the Knight from the Metropolitan, for example, shows the gently arching cut of the saw on the bottom right, chisel marks across the top center, and numerous, parallel cuts that resulted from filing.

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From Tusk to Treasure: Part I

Pete Dandridge, Conservator and Administrator, The Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation

Posted: Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Walrus ivory

All works of art strive to alter the perception of the viewer. The most successful meld a unique artistic vision with a thorough understanding of materials and a command of techniques. To discern how artists do what they do so well, conservators draw on a range of resources—including contemporary records of artistic practices, archaeological evidence, previous research, direct observation, and visual and material analyses.

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All Aboard!

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

Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pawn

If a chess player today were lucky enough to set up a board with pieces from the Lewis hoard, he or she would easily recognize the cast of characters, which became standardized in the Middle Ages. From conversations with visitors to the exhibition, I have learned that some players get tripped up trying to identify the Rooks or trying to distinguish the Kings from the Queens. If asked to play according to medieval rules, however, almost all players today would undoubtedly misstep, as these rules have changed over time and have varied by region. Read on to learn more!

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An Epic Battle

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

Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ivory Bishop

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.

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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.