Barbara Drake Boehm is the Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.
Posted: Friday, April 20, 2012
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.
Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012
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.
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).
Posted: Monday, February 27, 2012
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.
Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012
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."
Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012
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.
Posted: Tuesday, January 10, 2012
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.
Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2011
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.
Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2011
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!
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.
Posted: Monday, November 14, 2011
The Lewis Chessmen were found on an island that can be reached today only by air, or by ferry that takes more than two hours to cross from the Scottish mainland. Much beloved by hikers, the island has a landscape and climate that are daunting. Storm winds over the island can be so strong in the winter that they blow small fish up to the very top of the cliffs at Barra Head, which rise 620 feet above the water. In December, Lewis enjoys less than an hour of sunlight a day.