Chess Piece in the Form of a Knight, ca. 1250
Walrus ivory; Overall 3 1/16 x 2 9/16 x 1 3/8 in. (7.8 x 6.5 x 3.5 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.231)
Board games, especially chess, were integral to medieval courtly culture, as they were regarded as essential to honing tactical skills for the battlefield. Chess pieces fashioned for aristocratic households reflect the chivalric ideals embedded in the game. This piece, probably made in London, of locally available walrus ivory, is one of three that may come from the same high-quality set. This chessman shows a knight on horseback battling a dragon. He wears a shirt and leggings of mail underneath his surcoat and his head is protected by a helmet with narrow slits for the eyes. The knight has just pierced the dragon's head with a sword now unfortunately lost. The virtuosic, three-dimensional carving and the level of spatial invention of the piece are extraordinary, and distinguish it as a masterpiece.