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Stories in Game of Kings

High Ground

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

Posted: Friday, April 20, 2012

Chess Players, Banaras Floods

In previous posts, we discussed the origins of chess in India centuries ago. For the final post of this blog, we turn to modern-day India, where chess remains as popular as ever.

The city of Banaras (or Varanasi), in Uttar Pradesh, India, is holy to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. It is sometimes celebrated as the "City of Temples," of "Learning," or of "Lights." Located on the banks of the Ganges, it is also subject to relentless flooding.

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End Game

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

Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chess Players

Chess games are sometimes accurately represented in works of art, but that is not always the case. Consider, for example, this curiously theatrical photograph from the mid-nineteenth century.

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A Ruler's Riddle

Larry List, Independent Curator and Researcher

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Buzurjmihr Masters the Game of Chess

Three representations of "Buzurjmihr Masters the Game of Chess" are housed in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum. That the story was illustrated in the Shahnama (Book of Kings), recounting the tales of ancient heroes and rulers of pre-Islamic Iran, indicates that the tenth-century poet Abu'l Qasim Firdausi regarded this story as significant as a scene of battle or diplomacy. Indeed, it was both. It was also a turning point in the history of chess.

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Shah Mat! (Checkmate!)

Maryam Ekhtiar, Associate Curator, Department of Islamic Art

Posted: Wednesday, April 4, 2012

 Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess

Chess is undeniably the most popular board game ever invented, yet its origins are not entirely clear. It appears to have entered Iran through India. This development is documented in a Sasanian text in Middle Persian from the reign of Khusrau I (A.D. 531–579) that recounts the story of its introduction as a contest in refinement and intelligence between the Indians and the Persians.

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Chess on the Brain

Emma Wegner, Assistant Museum Educator, The Cloisters

Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012

Chess Tournament

After the success of our chess tournament in December, Shaun Smith, the Director of School Programs at Chess-in-the-Schools (CIS), contacted us to say how much the players had enjoyed themselves and that it would be great to do it again before the Lewis Chessmen exhibition ends in April. On Sunday, March 11, we hosted a second tournament, this time from CIS programs at four New York City elementary schools: PS 503K, PS 160K, PS 98M, and PS 31K. Thirty children, grades one through five, arrived early to play out the ancient battle between Kings, Queens, Pawns, and Knights.

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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

Men Playing Chess

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).

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A Good Companion

Elizabeth Morrison, Acting Senior Curator, Department of Manuscripts, J. Paul Getty Museum

Posted: Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bonus Socius

I recently visited the Cloisters to see The Game of Kings with curator Barbara Drake Boehm. I had always admired the Lewis Chessmen and was delighted to see them up close. The clever way in which the pieces are displayed on modern reconstructions of black-and-white chessboards reminded me of a manuscript of chess problems found in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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Boarded Up

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

Posted: Monday, February 27, 2012

Alfonso, Book of Games

The Metropolitan Museum owns more than forty chessboards dating from the Renaissance through the twentieth century; some private collectors have hundreds of boards. Medieval chessboards, on the other hand, rarely survive in any collection, and our knowledge of them depends largely on written sources. While some legends focus uniquely on the fact that they were big and heavy enough to be wielded as lethal weapons (see "An Epic Battle"), more nuanced information can be also gleaned from literature, from chess treatises, and from princely inventories.

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Under Their Spell

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

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2012

From the very moment of their discovery in 1831, the Lewis Chessmen have captured the imagination of all who encounter them. Local legend relates how the peasant who first unearthed them from a sand dune in Uig Bay ran for his life, fearing that they were sprites or elves. The chessmen have certainly worked their magic over the years, acting not only as inspiration to writers of fiction but also to filmmakers and the occasional museum curator.

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Finding a Mate

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

Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012

The Chess Players

Who would have thought there could be a connection between chess and Valentine's Day? Growing up, my image of chess pretty much corresponded to the Thomas Eakins painting shown above: graying gentlemen gathered around a table in a dimly lit sitting room, with only a glass of port to warm things up. Indeed, as a game that focuses on battle strategy (see "An Epic Battle"), chess seemed to me to be pretty much "a guy thing."

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Carving Out a Collection

Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock 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, Paul and Jill Ruddock 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, Paul and Jill Ruddock 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, Paul and Jill Ruddock 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, Paul and Jill Ruddock 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.