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: 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 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.
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, December 20, 2011
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).
Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2011
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.
Posted: Tuesday, December 6, 2011
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.
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
Although the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is one of the iconic mammals of the Arctic, its evolutionary story actually began in the tropics. By adapting to cold conditions, the distant ancestors of walruses were able to prosper in the harsh conditions of the northern polar regions. This took time; walruses are distantly related to fur seals and sea lions, but they have been on their own as a separate lineage for more than twenty million years. Although moderately diverse in the past, the walrus family declined over time and is now represented by just one species.