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Game of Kings, Game of Thrones

By Sean O’Hanlan


The Lewis Chessmen, arguably the most famous chess pieces in the world, are currently wrapping up a transatlantic tour. Thirty of the charming walrus ivory miniatures have spent the winter on view at New York’s Cloisters museum; on April 22nd, they will make their way back home to London’s British Museum.

The significance of these little kings, knights, and soldiers is discussed at length in a Grove Art Online article on chess sets:

“Abstract pieces based on Islamic models were initially used in Europe, but with the flowering of Gothic naturalism chessmen in human and animal forms were common. The mid-12th-century Lewis chessmen (London, BM; Edinburgh, Royal Mus. Scotland) are the largest extant group of European pieces and are thought to be of Scandinavian or British origin. Discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, the hoard included 78 chessmen in carved walrus tusk. The figures are seated, standing or riding caparisoned horses. The king and queen pieces wear crowns, the knight pieces carry long, pointed shields, and the traditional elephant-bishop piece is replaced by a figure in a mitred hat…. By 1200 chess was the most popular board game in Europe among the aristocracy and clergy…. Clerics frequently used the game of chess to symbolize the forces of good and evil.”

Chess, known as the “game of kings,” originated in northern India and has come to be equated with moral battles, political history, and strategy in war. According to Michael Curschmann, chess even played a role in the iconography of courtly love: “The lovers or would-be lovers play chess or dance — in pairs or in groups.” This medieval world of power, strategy, and love clearly maintains a strong hold on the popular imagination — the April 1st premiere of the second season of Game of Thrones, HBO’s medieval fantasy television series, just captured the attention of nearly 4.8 million viewers.

April has proven to be something of a banner month for the medieval world. A group of researchers have determined that the bodies of victims of the St Brice’s Day Massacre may in fact be Viking raiders, and the Vatican and Bodleian Libraries announced a joint effort to digitize ancient texts. Here at Oxford University Press, it saw the addition of 125 brand new articles on medieval art to Grove Art Online, contributed by nearly 90 internationally-recognized scholars — including the courtly love article quoted above. The effort — expertly guided by Colum P. Hourihane, Director of the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University — updates and expands Grove’s extensive coverage of this area of study.

We encourage you to visit the meticulously carved game pieces in the Romanesque Hall at the Cloisters while you still can. If you miss the chance, we invite you to explore the art of the medieval world through Grove Art.

Sean O’Hanlan is Editorial Intern for Grove Art Online, and an incoming graduate student in the doctoral program in the History of Art at Stanford University.

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