By KEN JOHNSON
Published: November 17, 2011
If, by some typically improbable turn of events, Homer Simpson were to unearth from his backyard an old chest containing a chess set from medieval times, what would the pieces look like? Chances are they would resemble the lovable little contestants beautifully carved from walrus tusks by anonymous artisans in the famous cache known as the Lewis Chessmen.
|Two similar, but differently styled, Lewis kings.|
Except for the pawns, which are shaped like tombstones and dome-topped, octagonal towers, each king, queen, bishop, knight and warder, as rooks used to be called, has the bug-eyed, stupefied expression of a Simpson. They could be Homer’s ancestors. You can judge for yourself: 34, all from the British Museum, are in “The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen From the Isle of Lewis,” presented in the perfect setting of the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s citadel for medieval art. The exhibition includes other chess pieces — Islamic and medieval — and carved bone objects from the Met’s collection, all of which serve mainly to show by contrast just how adorable the Lewis chessmen are.
|A Lewis "berserker" (warder) or Rook.|
The kings, sitting on ornate thrones with swords across their laps, seem lost in thought, their shoulders weighed down by their preoccupations. The queens, also enthroned, have their hands clapped to their cheeks as if in dismay and thinking, “D’oh!” But Mr. Robinson observes about the pieces in general, “Identifying the exact nature of their attraction for people of the time is a challenge,” and so the humor question remains unanswered.
What is known about the chessmen is that they were found by a farmer on the Isle of Lewis, the largest island of the Outer Hebrides, in 1831. How they got there is a mystery. Some think they arrived from Iceland, but conventional wisdom has it that they somehow came off a merchant ship traveling a regular trade route between Norway and Ireland and that they were produced in Trondheim, a Norwegian town, between 1150 and 1200.
The hoard included 78 chessmen from at least four different, incomplete sets; some pieces resembling checkers; and a belt buckle carved from ivory. The British Museum quickly acquired most of them, and in 1888 the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, secured 11 that had remained in private hands.
Humorously intended or not, each piece is a wonderful, diminutive sculpture, ranging from 1 5/8 inches to just over 4 inches tall. Unlike Renaissance chess sets that abounded in feats of technique, the Lewis Chessmen have a folk art quality. Something archaic about them makes them seem strange and otherworldly. Though not realistic in the modern sense of the word, they appear magically animated, as if the right spell would awaken them from their dormant state.
Certainly they were a good choice for a scene in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in which Harry and Ron Weasley play Wizard’s Chess using reproductions of the Lewis Chessmen. In the movie white pieces oppose red ones, which is how the figures were originally divided. But the red stains have worn away, and now they are all the color of ivory.
Close looking shows many details rendered with a tender touch. The faces are generically stylized, but each is different enough that some scholars have speculated that they might portray real people. Beards on the male combatants come in a variety of shapes and sizes; some of the kings are clean-shaven. Robes fall in buttery folds, with occasional passages of slight rumpling. Throne backs are carved into intertwining vines, mythic beasts and architectural elements. Each bishop wears an individualized miter. The knights ride pony-size steeds resembling carousel horses.
It is frustrating that plexiglass containers prevent you from picking them up for intimate examination. You would like to heft them, feel the smooth, warm bone and zoom in to see patterns on fabric and other details realized with eye-straining delicacy.
Mr. Robinson notes that some stragglers might yet turn up and make four complete sets. You might want to keep an eye out for a knight, 4 warders and 45 pawns. Meanwhile, a word to “The Simpsons” producers: How about an episode starring Bart as Harry in “Harry Potter and the Lewis Chessmen”?