Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Game of Kings: Medieval Whimsy

An "art review" (yep, in the Arts section, not Sports, har!) article from The New York Times:

Art Review
Medieval Foes With Whimsy
Published: November 17, 2011   

Photographs are by Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Two similar, but differently styled, Lewis kings.

A Lewis "berserker" (warder) or Rook.
In a booklet from the British Museum about the collection, James Robinson, the museum’s curator of medieval collections, asks, “Were the chessmen, in fact, meant to be comic?” Mr. Robinson points out some funny things about them. One of the warders, who wears a conical helmet and long robe and holds a sword and a shield, seems to glance nervously to his left, as if he’d heard a suspicious sound while standing guard at night. Some warders have their teeth overlapping the tops of their shields, a curious biting gesture thought to identify them as “berserkers”: Nordic warriors who went into battle in frenzied states that might have been induced by alcohol or Amanita muscaria, hallucinogenic mushrooms.

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”?

1 comment:

medieval outfit said...

Wow! Very medieval, I wonder where can I buy this one. Perfect for my collection.


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