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.

Scandinavian Queen, c1400, 7cm high. Sotheby's London.

Before I examine this lovely Scandinavian Queen, consider 2 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:

Charlemagne queen, c1100, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
For comparison.

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
For comparison.

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.


Andrew said...

I am always a learnin' from you. Apart from the chess pieces, and Charlemagne, which I know a bit about, western Scottish isles ruled by Norway!!! Well, I knew there was some connection.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I guess the point is once you have your California house, what do you spend your next half-a-million on? From the description, this seems to be an important rarity, although I would spend a lot of time checking up on any piece of medieval ivory.

You post brought back memories of visiting the Cleveland Public Library. I would always find time to visit the John G. White collection on the third floor, which contained an important collection of Chess pieces and books on chess, as well as other treasures.

If any of your readers find themselves in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, be sure to visit this gem of a building and its White collection.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


everything has a history. Even God, according to Karen Armstrong's clever book. I was familiar with the Scottish islands' history, but Malta's blew me away - Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, Normans, Catalans, Knights of Malta, Napoleon, the British and Italians.

It is a shame children don't do much history at school any more.

Hels said...


I don't play chess nor did I know much about the art of chess piece-making. However I love small art objects, royal perhaps ...but not monumental. And so it was great that this queen was sold in a "sculpture and works of art" auction, not a games auction.

Thanks for the reference to Cleveland Public Library. It would be well worth having a look.

Pat said...

We looked as small ivory art objects in class although not chess pieces. Beautiful and easily transported.

Hels said...


*nod* We started with Byzantine ivory works esp religious triptychs in low relief. Not only was the relief work stunningly fine and beautiful, but how useful they must have been for private devotion at home and when travelling.

P. M. Doolan said...

This is the first I heard of the Scandanavian Queen. I do know however that the first mention of chess in Christian Europe occurs in a Latin manuscript in the monastry of Einseideln, which is about 30 minutes drive from my house here in Switzerland. This manuscrript also contains the first ever reference to the chess queen (she did not exist in the Indian or Arab versions of the game).

ChrisJ said...

I was surprised to learn that the Queen, around the time of Charlemagne, or a little later, could move in the unlimited fashion we know today. Prior to that, she was limited to two (I think) squares. Some scholars suggest that the change which came about at the time of the troubadours and the Cult of the Virgin in Provence and Italy, signalled the emerging Romance view of women, queens, and virgins.

The Scandinavian Queen is lovely; so much more flowing and graceful than the others, although the Lewis knight is very powerful!

Hels said...


true. Everything has a complex history over the centuries, including the game of chess.

Until last week I had not heard of the book The Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom. Her work examined the evolution of the chess queen in relation to the progression of women's rights within society since the rise of Christianity.

Hels said...


I quite like the idea of "troubadours and the Cult of the Virgin in Provence and Italy, signalled the emerging Romance view of women, queens, and virgins". It changed music, poetry, clothing, manuscript art etc etc.. why not games as well?

The fascinating element is that chess reached Europe from India and the Muslim world over a very long time. I imagine changes and adaptations had to be made all the time.

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Hels said...


Vikings: Life and Legend is on at the British Museum at Great Russell St London until the end of June 2014. If you are interested in Viking games, coins, jewellery and weapons, you must see this exhibition.

Country Life said...

A 3" knight riding on a monster alongside a jester was auctioned by Sotheby's. It was dated from c1400 and came probably from Denmark.

Country Life, 26th August 2015.

Hels said...

ohhh it is gorgeous. But look at the price it fetched £173,000!! (USA $267,000)

"The knight rides a monster and is accompanied by a jester. These attributes underline the courtly nature of chess in the middle ages, whilst also conveying a sense of playfulness. The presence of a jester and an inventive monster, which recalls creatures in medieval bestiaries, marks the present ivory out as one of the most appealing and idiosyncratic of surviving medieval chessmen". "Such was the popularity of chess that it was frequently used by the clergy to illustrate their moral lessons, thus prompting further reverence for the game".

See Sotheby's catalogue entry http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.22.html/2015/old-master-sculpture-works-art-l15231

Albert Silver said...

This important collection of early chess pieces reveals how the the origins of the game are
rooted in India and the Middle East. Each of these remarkable pieces carries huge significance in its evolution, including an extremely rare, early and almost complete 10th-century set.

The pièce de résistance of the Sotheby's auction is a rare Samanid part chess-set, Nishapur, 10th/11th century or earlier. As highlighted by Dr Thomas Thomsen, President for the last twenty years of Chess Collectors International: "In my forty years' experience, I am not aware of any other chess set from this period". Initial estimates are at $40 thousand but it could easily fetch three or four times that much.

The auction of early chess pieces is just a small part of the chess sets, books and memorabilia that Lothar Schmid collected until he passed away in 2013. Among other things, he amassed a 50,000-volume library of chess books, including some of the rarest chess texts dating back to 1497.

Hels said...


If a top expert like Dr Thomsen can say "In my forty years' experience I am not aware of any other chess set from this period", it suggests the brilliant chess pieces were secreted away for decades. Imagine finding and loving a treasure that (almost) no-one else in the world knows about!