The Lewis Chessmen in New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting the Lewis Chessmen until April 22, 2012. Thirty of the 78 pieces will be on display in the Romanesque Hall at the Cloisters. It’s rare for such a large chunk of the collection to appear outside of the UK.

The Lewis Chessmen are the most significant game pieces ever discovered. They almost certainly were made in Norway in the 12 century, and then shipped west for sale to the upper classes of the British Isles. Carved from walrus tusks, their beautiful craftsmanship and unusual designs have captivated people since their discovery in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. 
The figures were part of a hoard buried in the sand, and including pieces from at least 5 chess sets, pieces for the game of Tables, and a buckle. This Salon story plays up the “mystery” angle, but there really isn’t anything mysterious about them. Beautiful? Impressive? Important? Yes. But there’s no real need to turn it into a mystery story. The Baghdad Battery is mysterious. The Lewis Chessmen were cargo retrieved from a shipwreck, and perhaps buried with plans for later retrieval. All the other stories are purely for the tourists. 
My personal favorite has always been the berserker biting his shield (a Rook, shown above), his eyes wide with lunatic rage in the full fever of a battle frenzy. The pieces are the rarest kind of game art, mixing humor, pathos, stateliness, satire, and perhaps even political commentary. (This doesn’t look like the image of a King which a king would endorse.)  
Then, of course, there’s the Queen (shown at right). She’s not sure why you just did what you did, but she’s really disappointed with you.

We’ll never know the name of their craftsman, now dead and forgotten nine centuries ago, but he was an artist of the first order. Get to the Met and see for yourself. It’s a rare opportunity.

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