“The Game of Kings”
The Cloisters / Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY
Exhibit continues until April 22, 2012
The Lewis Chessmen by Tony Jones. See the rest of Tony's beautiful photos on Flickr, here.
A review by Lynne Perrella
The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of Medieval Europe, is located on an imposing hilltop overlooking the Hudson River, at the northern tip of Manhattan. Patterned on ancient monasteries, and comprised of architectural fragments as well as stained glass and structural columns, this unique museum also features open-air courtyards, gardens and serene walkways and columned arcades. I’ve always found this Museum to be an ideal antidote to “real life”, and it is magnificent in any season….including summer when the herb garden is lush, full and fragrant; and winter when somber white snow drifts outline every detail of the vaulted facade. Home to some of the most noted medieval works of art in the world, including the Unicorn Tapestries, The Cloisters recently threw open its iron-bound heavily-carved doors to the infamous Lewis Chess pieces.
The Lewis Chessmen by Tony Jones. More photos here.
If figurative artwork is your bailiwick, you have to admire these remarkable charismatic and compelling walrus-ivory carvings of Kings, Queens, Bishops, Warders and Knights. And if tall tales and mysteries are your preference, the Lewis chess pieces are hard to top. In fact, for years they were described as “curiosities”, and acknowledged as small-scale sculptures. It was kismet that these chess pieces, which rarely leave the British Museum, would eventually travel to the United States and be displayed in the vaulted and atmospheric Romanesque Hall that includes four stone portals rescued from churches dating back to the mid-12th century. It was sobering to consider that the chessmen actually PRE-dated the ancient archways in the room, and are probably some of the most storied works of art ever.
It is believed that the figures were carved by unknown craftsmen in Norway, probably in the 1100s…But the real fun (and rampant folklore!) began when the chess pieces were re-discovered under remarkable circumstances in 1831, on the Isle of Lewis off the Scottish mainland. Although various legends exist, one prevalent story suggests that a man scouring the shoreline started digging in a sandbank and came across a stone chamber that contained at least seventy of the carved pieces, plus an ivory belt buckle.
Considering the largest carvings of the Kings are at least four inches tall, imagine what a cache of seventy figures would look like. No wonder the man reportedly fled, thinking that he had intruded upon “elves or gnomes conducting their rituals”. (Luckily, his wife insisted that he return to his find, and recover the chess pieces for posterity.) Eventually the chessmen passed through many hands before they became part of the permanent collections of both the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. And – just to make this remarkable story even more compelling – it is believed that even MORE of the chess pieces are still “out there” waiting to be rediscovered.
Photo found at the Boylston Chess Club Weblog, here
The Lewis chess pieces are distinguished by similar facial features throughout all the characters, giving them the appearance of a united family. Their prominent staring eyes provoke a sense of mystery and drama, and clothing details and thrones are replete with intricate carvings of interlocking tendrils and geometric flourishes. Each Queen rests a palm against her cheek, seemingly in wonderment or deep thought, Knights are depicted atop strange draped steeds and carry heraldic shields; while the stalwart Kings sit on elaborate thrones with swords placed across their knees in readiness. The Warders are the most bizarre in appearance, as they literally bite down on the top edge of their shields. These strange helmeted figures, fittingly called “Berserkers”, exude an intensity that is stark and provocative.
Staring into the glass display cases, it was irresistible to think of the sets of hands that originally carved the pieces….or sorted through them on that desolate Scottish beach…. or held them while contemplating some winning strategy….or perhaps carefully examined and catalogued them for a museum collection. Passing from hand to hand, they survive, endure and thrive…..and the story-telling that accompanies them everywhere they go just sweetens the pot. Chess, anyone? - Lynne Perrella
I'm sure you have all enjoyed Lynne Perrella's review of the Lewis Chessmen exhibition as much as I did. Thank you so much Lynne! As always your enthusiasm is contagious and I hope to see the chessmen someday.
The Cherry on the Top ...... Lynne is offering a prize for a lucky draw: A full-color 9 X 12 print of the beautiful artwork you see at the top of the post by, Lynne Perrella, as well as a book titled "The Lewis Chessmen / British Museum Objects in Focus" by James Robinson. Leave a comment at the end of this post and I will announce the winner on Friday, the 16th March.
It also happens to be Lynne's 31/31 feature day at The Altered page today so hop on over to check it out here or to see more of Lynne's art and workshop news on her website here.
And the winner is....Darlene Campbell (Freenie Belle)