NOVEMBER 24, 2011
Masterpiece: The Lewis Chessmen (12th Century)
Lively, Ivory Warriors
In the 2001 film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Harry and his pal Ron play a Christmastide game of "wizard chess" in the bedecked Great Hall of Hogwarts. To many film lovers the chess pieces' gnomelike appearance would seem another example of the film's masterly art direction. But connoisseurs of antique chess sets recognize the pieces as copies of what is arguably the most famous chess set of all, the 12th-century Lewis chessmen.
Eighty-two Lewis chessmen reside in the British Museum, which purchased them between 1831 and 1832 (an additional 11 pieces are owned by the National Gallery of Scotland). The tangled history of this doughty little army—selections from which are currently on exhibition at the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval treasury in upper Manhattan—is worthy of a Wilkie Collins mystery.
According to the illustrated essay accompanying the exhibition, by the British Museum's curator of late medieval collections, James Robinson, they were part of a hoard of luxury goods unearthed in 1831 in a sandbank along Uig Bay, on the west coast of the windswept Isle of Lewis, largest of the Outer Hebrides west of Scotland. Suffice it to say that the Lewis chessmen eventually arrived at the British Museum via a chain of avarice, sharp dealings and, happily, dedicated scholarship.
Soon after the discovery, stylistic inspection revealed that the multiple kings, queens, bishops and other pieces in the hoard represented pieces from at least four distinct but incomplete sets. Stylistic similarities to contemporaneous church sculpture point specifically to the Norwegian city of Trondheim.
"These pieces represent the highest class of society," observes Mr. Robinson as we examine them together at the Cloisters. "And though they were by tradition thought to have been a merchant's hoard, they may well have been made for a Medieval Norwegian king and presented by him to one of his ambassadors as part of the wealth they were supposed to display, symbolic of their sovereign's power."
Chess, which originated in sixth-century India and came to Europe by way of Persia and the Islamic lands, was truly the game of kings. Sovereigns and their courtiers played chess not only for amusement, but to exercise their skill at military strategy in an age when might often made right.
Medieval European chessmen were fashioned from various precious materials, but virtually every one of the Lewis chessmen is a masterpiece ivory sculpture in miniature. Tough, though prone to splitting when worked or stored near heat, ivory has a satisfying heft when held, and can be polished to a buttery sheen. These animated little warriors were hand-carved using a variety of knives, saws, files and drills. Moreover the Lewis chessmen are distinctive because most are made of walrus ivory, a characteristic medium of maritime North Europe. Walrus tusks are much smaller than African elephant tusks, which dictates the size of objects carved from it. Walrus is also more yellow in color than elephant ivory, and because the smooth outer layer is also thinner than elephant ivory, carving often exposes the darker pulp beneath. Exposed pulp is often kept in less prominent places on the Lewis figures—under a carved fold of a costume, for instance—which shows how skillfully the anonymous craftsmen planned the carving of each piece.
That carving itself is distinctive, especially in its visual strength. As chess is an abstract battle, so the chessmen, especially the pawns, are carved as lively abstractions of human figures. Their overall shape is dictated by the tapering shape of a section of tusk, and their features, physiques and costumes are worked with marvelous detail within this limitation.
Certainly, the pieces bear distinct family resemblances within the different ranks, though their sizes vary, depending on the size of the original piece of tusk. Kings—some bearded, some not, all with long plaited hair under their crowns—sit on their elaborately carved thrones, swords in their laps. Their cloaks are meticulously detailed to show the right arm free to wield that sword. Queens, their veils falling from beneath their crowns, are carved to show their position as regal advisers. Though their right hands seem to be slapping their cheeks in consternation, the gesture was meant to signify thoughtful deliberation.
To carve a queen's fully rounded right arm required consummate skill to drill through the ivory, shape the limb and finally polish it in the round without fracturing it. Similar pierce-work distinguishes the bishops, each of whom holds a crozier, the hooked staff of episcopal office.
Kings, queens and bishops are all enthroned, and the exquisite scrollwork carved on the backs of each throne "recalls the marginalia of a manuscript" Mr. Robinson says. This intricate, sinuous visual language was an essential part of Northern European Medieval art, linking these chessmen to Romanesque and early Gothic stone carving and illuminations of the Book of Kells.
The Trustees of the British Museum
Finally the most abstract of all the chessmen, the little pawns, each worked from a tiny bullet-shaped tip of a tusk and carved only with a series of facets, or with incised flat sides, instead of human features.
Superficially, the bulging eyes of those chessmen with faces lend them a comically lunatic stare. But as you compare these pieces, each reveals nuances—facial features, gestures and postures—that the master ivory carvers achieved within the limitations imposed by the walrus tusk. For example, one of the warders is carved with his face and even his eyes turned slightly off to the side in apparent thought. It is this essential humanity of the unknown carver's hand that reaches across to us over the centuries. Viewed this way, we can understand Mr. Robinson's comment that "these Lewis Chessmen are my Elgin Marbles."
—Mr. Scherer writes about classical music and the fine arts for the Journal.