The history, art history and architecture of Britain and its Empire, Europe, the Mediterranean and North America, 1640-1940.
20 November 2012
The Scandinavian Queen: would you buy a medieval chess piece or pay off your mortgage?
Vikings were normally thought of as unkempt, long haired savages whose sole goal in life was to invade new territories, pillage, massacre the locals and then go home with their new found plunder. Clearly that happened often enough for the stereotype to be accepted as true.
But there is a ton of evidence to show that the Vikings often travelled in peace. They were traders, bringing antlers, ivory, wool and slaves to countries who wanted those products. In return they brought back spices, glass and wine. They were surprisingly sophisticated people, in love with gorgeous jewellery made from pure gold, elaborate croziers, flasks, decorative swords and silver coins. And finely wrought chess sets.
Before I examine this lovely Scandinavian Queen, consider the two medieval chess sets or part sets that were already well known: the Charlemagne and the Lewis chessmen.
In 1598, 30 Charlemagne chess pieces were found and inventoried in the treasury of Saint-Denis, all made from elephant ivory. They date from about 1100 AD and seem to have come, not from the East but from a workshop of southern Italy, probably Salerno. During the French Revolution, pieces must have been lost or destroyed; in the 1794 inventory, there were only 16 pieces left, including 2 kings, 2 queens and 4 knights. The extant Charlemagne chess pieces can be seen at the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
The Lewis Chessmen are a group of 78 ivory chess pieces. When they were found in 1831 on one of the Outer Hebrides islands off the NW coast of Scotland, research suggested 12th century origins (soon after the Charlemagne set). Those origins were probably in a coastal area of Norway or in the Western Isles, a part of Scotland that was then ruled by Norway. Today the majority of the Lewis chess pieces are owned and displayed by the British Museum in London.
But now something new - the Scandinavian Queen, found in Sotheby's London auction (3/7/2012) of sculpture and works of art from the medieval period on. Their catalogue provided the following very useful information:
Few late medieval chess pieces are as finely carved or well preserved as the present example. The principal comparisons for this piece, a king formerly in Schloss Sigmaringen and a knight in Copenhagen, are neither as elaborate nor have the soft marine ivory worn as gracefully.
Each walrus ivory piece represents a figure on horseback surrounded by guards, pages and courtiers. These attendants not only emphasise the importance of the piece within the game but also gave the carver an opportunity to strengthen the base whilst freely adding some charming genre figures. The Charlemagne King, an Indian piece from the 9th century in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, epitomises this practice with rows of archers riding with the King on an elephant and horsemen circling the base.
Given their scale and different conventions for the representation of chess pieces, it is often difficult to determine which role medieval chess pieces fulfilled. In such groups as the Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum, a horse is indicative of knights. But here the veil, long flowing robes and the suggestion of a crown might indicate the piece served as the queen. As can be seen in the piece in Copenhagen, knights and kings tend to have armed guards, whereas the dress of the attendants here suggests they are female courtiers, male pages and clerics; a more fitting entourage for a queen.
Lewis knight, 12th century, 7-10cm high. British Museum London
The game of chess originated in India, where its predecessor chaturanga was played for several millennia before it started evolving into the present game in the 6th century AD. The game reached Europe through the Muslim world, then Spain a few centuries later, and was firmly rooted across Europe by the Middle Ages. Its association with strategy and intelligence established it as a royal game. Such was the popularity of chess, it was frequently used by the clergy to illustrate their moral lessons, thus prompting further reverence for the game.
The Scandinavian Queen and her tiny attendants were absolutely charming, but most people were surprised by the amount of money fetched at auction - UK £277,250 or AUS $422,000 or USA $443,000! For AUS $422,000 I could buy a perfect Californian bungalow in a country town, surrounded by lawn and trees front and back.