Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Chess set, 12th century
    Nishapur, Iran
    Glazed fritware
    Pfeiffer Fund, 1971 (1971.193a–ff)

    Literary and archaeological sources attribute the origin of chess to northern India and trace its spread to Iran by around 600 A.D. The famous poet Firdausi, who recorded the Persian national epic, the Shahnama, explains the invention of chess as a way of demonstrating to a grieving queen the battle in which one of her sons died opposing his brother. Firdausi also recounts a tale explaining how the game was introduced into Iran: the ruler of India sent a chess set with an envoy as a challenge, declaring that his tribute payment was contingent on the ability of the Iranian king to decode the object of the game. While these legends convey the courtly roots of chess, other sources demonstrate that the game was enormously popular at all levels of society in the medieval Islamic world.

    This is one of the earliest extant chess sets and it is nearly complete, consisting of seventeen turquoise pieces and fifteen purple pieces, fashioned from molded fritware and finished by hand. The individual pieces are highly abstracted versions of their referents. The shah (king) is represented as a large throne and the firzan or vizier (in European chess, the queen) is a smaller throne. The fil (elephant, which became the European bishop) has a circular base and a flattened top from which two protrusions recall the animal's tusks. The faras (horse, the knight piece) has a circular base with a triangular knob representing the head. The rukh (chariot, the equivalent of the rook or castle piece) has a rectangular base with an inverted wedge at the top. The pawns are faceted domical forms surmounted by small knobs.

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    On view: Gallery 453
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  • Chess set, 12th century
    Nishapur, Iran
    Glazed fritware
    Pfeiffer Fund, 1971 (1971.193a–ff)


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