“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)
Great post. Each time I see the chessmen at the British Museum, I hope the crowds have gone for lunch. They have to be one of my all time favourite and haunting exhibits and I probably stand beside them way to long!! Imagine being the person who found them on the beach!!!! Please can my name go into the hat?ReplyDelete
Oh, I love the expressions on their faces... I live in the UK and have never seen them but am definitely going to make it a priority when I go to London in April! Thanks for this blog post all about them!ReplyDelete
Oh these are wonderful!!! Another amazing post Robyn...I would love to be able to visit that exhibition. I cant believe they have survived since 1100 and be in such amazing condition.ReplyDelete
I would love the chance to go in the draw for the book and that gorgeous artwork of Lynnes!
They are wonderful aren't they!ReplyDelete
I've seen them "in the bone"....
..and couldn't fail to marvel at the intricacy of the carving.
I don't know if the Berserker can't hardly wait to strike in battle or he is shaking with fright. What a handsome set. I would love to see them some time.ReplyDelete
I don't know if they still do but many years ago ReplyDelete
the British Museum used to sell replica pieces, cast from moulds of the originals.
They weren't cheap and at the time I could only afford one piece a month.
Sadly times became hard and I had to stop purchasing them, so I only own about 2/3rds of a complete set,
but every know and then I get them out to marvel at their beauty.
I think with only one exception [Sutton Hoo ship burial] they are my favourite things in the whole museum.
Thank you for this post! I've wanted to visit The Cloisters since we moved to Connecticut, but haven't managed it yet. I'll definitely make it a priority now so the chessmen can be seen as well. The primitive, simple carving is striking as is the artistry and skill required to make them.ReplyDelete
Remarkable. Wouldn't you love to be able to handle the pieces?ReplyDelete
The pieces are amazing - and what a story! I wonder if the craftsmen who created these in the 1800's were admired and honored as artists in their day -ReplyDelete
And Lynne's artwork is fabulous! Great post!
i always feel like more when i come here... and today is no exception - if i read this correctly, they are still at the cloisters - which means a trip is in order for the kids and i! i have always thought this was the best museum to start with for my 13 yr. old anyway - who can resist the medieval period? thank you, robyn... have a wonderful weekend...ReplyDelete
Lynne, reading your incredible description is almost as good as being there. You've captured every nuance of each character. I loved learning the story behind the figures!ReplyDelete
Wow, those are extraordinary. No wonder the man that found them was somewhat afraid. They each have such a presence and individual character that they come alive for me, too! They remind me of the collection of Japanese netsuke that my father has, especially the bulging eyes. One of my father's has tiny ivory eyes that do pop out when you tilt him. Really incredible.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the beauty and deep mystery today!
Thank you for a fantastic post! Like Liz, I love their expressions.ReplyDelete
Wow, my heart hammered when I first saw photos of these. Just love to fantasize about finding then on that beach. Lynn's wordsReplyDelete
are spot on!! Thanks for the giveaway.
missy from the bayou
These are amazing!!! I love them and wish I could see them for real. And the stories surrounding these chess pieces are wonderful, thanks to Lynn for making them come alive.ReplyDelete
Dear Lynne, she always finds the most wonderful things and then writes about it in the most compelling way and her artwork....beautiful and timeless ,always....the chessmen never looked better, don't you think?ReplyDelete
Bishop to queen 4....your move Robyn.
I may have to plan a trip to see these. Thanks, Lynne, for writing about them so eloquently.ReplyDelete
wow - would love a print. thanks for the chance!ReplyDelete
These are amazing. I've been trying my hand at carving bone. It's hard work, even with my flexshaft. I filled with wonder and envy looking at the artistry in these pieces.ReplyDelete
what a wonderful print, lynne! please put my name in the hat! those little men are just my type! havent been to the Cloisters in centuries but what a perfect place to show that collection off! thanks also to Robyn for showcasing Lynne's article and pic.ReplyDelete
What a review! I have never heard of them much less laid eyes on them. That was wonderful. Thanks so much!!! Please put my name in the drawing!ReplyDelete
What a fabulous review by Lynn. The Chessman are so mysterious and wonderful, and this is the first I have heard of them, so thanks for enlightening me! Maybe someday I will be able to see them in person.ReplyDelete
Wonderful art pieces. Thanks for educating me about them. Beautifully written piece.ReplyDelete
Her art is exquisite. Lucky one who gets it.
Lynne takes us back to that beach....these are amazing and I'd love to see them in person. I love how Lynn tells us these wonderful stories. And her artwork- stunning! Thank you!ReplyDelete
Amazing - I didn't realize they were playing chess in the 1100s. A stunning review and beautiful art work.ReplyDelete
At first they seemed strangely familiar...beautiful and mysterious. I feel my day has been changed by having seen them...richer by far...thank you to you and Lynne.ReplyDelete
I can't help but see some similarities between these cheesman and your carvings Robyn. They are quite wonderful. Do they inspire you to carve? thanks for having Lynne share this exhibit review with all of us.ReplyDelete
These art pieces are awesome. What a feeling they give. Each one a sculpture on their own...but all together...awesome! I'd love a chance to own this print giveaway. *smiles* NormaReplyDelete
This review of the Lewis Chessmen reminded me of the wise words of my friend Wayne Snowdon (sculptor of astounding toys and playful wordsmith-ReplyDelete
"ahhh... carving... I fully appreciate directing ones art towards the talinistic, who says art has no fundction! if it must look in, let it protect it's own illusion..."
please excuse the typo that should have read function... my cat Ariel is helping me type this morning!ReplyDelete
It never fails that Lynne will lead you into a place that you don't want to come out of. I'm in love, it's official and here is the third justification for a trip to NY in a week.ReplyDelete
I'm packing my bags. Lynne thank you for this wonderful treat today and Robyn thanks for your wonderful blog!
thank you for the wonderful review,accompanying photos and history. how I wish I could see them in "person". imagine meeting one of those berserkers!ReplyDelete
Such exquisite pieces... must put that on my list if I'm ever in the UK. Love the print of Lynne's... I'm a fan of her work.ReplyDelete
Oh, my heaventy sakes! Are you kidding?! And if I hadn't been at the dentist, I would have been able to rush over here and comment before Erin! But, no! She's always been Lynne's favorite!!ReplyDelete
I'm sorry. I got carried away. I would love this work.
Even beyond all of my silliness, this review, and the awareness of these Lewis men just makes me so intrigued. I'm off to read all the links. Leave it to the Nords to come up with such fabulosity! What a wonder for chess-set lovers. Thanks for sharing this, Robin.
I love the stories these figures carry and tell in their own strange way. Well done Lynne and Robyn!ReplyDelete
My goodness! What an incredible story! And, how wonderful that they are on view in the U.S., at The Cloisters. I absolutely love the simple, economy of form with which the chess pieces were created, and the mystery to be pondered in their enigmatic, staring faces. Lynne's artwork based on these chess pieces is gorgeous! Great thanks to her for sharing their story.ReplyDelete
Imagine the tales one could tell after being around for 900+ years!
Seeing them so close-up, you can feel them in your hand. The family resemblance, and staring eyes, add to the wonderfulness, as do the teeth-on-shields posture of the Berserkers. Another transporting write-up, carrying us beyond our daily thoughts. Thank you both for sharing this.ReplyDelete
I love the Cloisters and have not been there in many years. This sounds like a very good reason to return. These chess pieces are magnificent and the story of how they were 'found' just magical. Great post Robyn and great review Lynne. Thanks to you both.ReplyDelete
What a wonderful post, and such a story. I am going to research them more. As usual thank you for such a thought provoking post. I would love to win that give away!ReplyDelete
Always wonderful to see Lynne's discoveries. Enjoyed this one immensely. Wish I were back in NYC but alas, not until next fall.ReplyDelete
Always love Lynne's discoveries. This collection is fabulous and I want to touch them. Wish I were there but alas, not until the fall.ReplyDelete
Lynne's stuff is always the best! I've got my shovel in hand and am ready to start digging for the remaining pieces! Thanks for sharing that Robyn-----fun!ReplyDelete
Lynn is certainly one of the most talented artists out there. I have been a fan since True Colors. I just reread it again for the umteenthed time!ReplyDelete
This was so informative and the photographs have captured the intriguing detail of the carvings. Thanks for sharing this. I'm visiting from Seth's blog and am loving discovering yet another amazing artist. Thanks!ReplyDelete
these exquisite little people charm me.ReplyDelete
Lynne's review is almost as compelling as the chessmen themselves! I would love to be able to see them someday.ReplyDelete
I had no idea that the game of chess has been played for so long!ReplyDelete
Wow, Wow, Wow what a great post. How interesting. Thanks.ReplyDelete
What a wonderful review written by Lynne and what a unique story about these extraordinary chess pieces. How they were found is equally unique. I've been to the cloisters a few times- and it is truly a place like no other. Thanks for this wonderful post- and Lynne's work is amazing.ReplyDelete
I almost missed the review as I was so enthralled by the painting by Lynne, admiring the colors and patterns and the expressions on the eyes, then I read about the chess pieces, what a wonderful story and so lucky that they were still there to retrieve.ReplyDelete
I have no idea how, but I've not heard of the chessmen until now. They intrigue me, and the story behind them is also interesting. Thanks for a great review, Lynne!ReplyDelete
Really? A chance to win your art? I'm here and ready to accept. You have been an inspiration to me..I hold on to the concept also,to create as free as a child. Seth's description of you is lovely and how I had imaginedif I 'd get to meet you...a true spirit about engaging people in art and encouraging them. Thank you for the chance to win.
I wonder what stories those chessmen would have to share. If only they could talk! Thanks for the incredible post.ReplyDelete
Please count me in!
Thank you both for bringing joy and curiousity into my Saturday morning.ReplyDelete
What a wonderful review, and the artwork inspired by the chess pieces is amazing. Oh, and thank you, Lynne, for reminding me about the Cloisters. It's only a couple of miles from my home, and I just don't get there often enough.ReplyDelete
Wow. My mind reels to think of the hands and tools that carved these...Lynne is a talented, insightful writer whose work only adds to the enchantment!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Robyn, for this post.
Oh, I love these chess pieces, they make me want to carve. And the photograph of the wild cow (?) on the beach where they were found, AND Lynne's article! Thanks, Robyn...ReplyDelete
Our kids are lucky enough to have learnt chess on a Lewis chess set, how could they not living so close to Lewis, on the Isle of Skye? Made out of resin, of course, oh, well! Beautiful piece by Lynne, I'll read Seths piece now.ReplyDelete
I grew up in NYC and did visit the Cloisters several times. Even then I knew that there time/space continuum going on for me. I wish so much that I could return there now; along with my 'wisdom' eyes and my more fully developed obsession with the time period that is showcased there. Amazing how well these works stand the truest tests of time.ReplyDelete
I am lucky enough to own two pieces (a queen and a bishop) of this set that I discovered in an antiques shop years ago!! I've been fascinated by them ever since!!! They are two of my most treasured possessions! Wish I lived close enough to attend the exhibit (and that I could find more pieces)! Lynne is one of my favorite artists, and to own this print would be the icing on the cake!!!ReplyDelete
R-what a surprise to see your post on these intricate and mysterious carvings. Fiona and I were fortunate to visit the Cloisters when in NYC and were able to see the exhibit. Still seems to be a lot of mystery about how they got where they were, why they were put there etc etc - but who cares - they are just beautiful. Thanks. BReplyDelete
Lynn certainly knows how to write a good story. Lots of color in her art AND her words. Thanks for doing this.ReplyDelete
Wow, I would be pretty surprised to uncover a cache like that! Thanks for sharing the story of how they were rediscovered.ReplyDelete
Oh I want to reach right out and hold one of these beautiful objects in the palm of my hand... simplicity, and style and function.ReplyDelete
Love both of your works, thanks for a great review and a giveaway I would love to win. :-)ReplyDelete
Have a great week!
Thank you for sharing. I am so glad Seth sent me over here.ReplyDelete
I wish I could travel more and see these wonderful exhibits in person.
The chessmen are AMAZING! As a doll maker, I'm enthralled with their form and expressions. Thanks so much for the introduction... and to Lynne for the great review.ReplyDelete
Very interesting post.. and wonderful images.. I have seen these images before.ReplyDelete
Your posts never disappoint!! I love coming to your blog!!! It's one of my favorites!! xoReplyDelete
Oh wow! I'm going to NYC Saturday - I wasn't sure I'd have time in my schedule to make it to the Cloisters, but now I may have to make time!ReplyDelete
I have always been a fan of yours . Love that you are in Seth's book , I can't wait to read and see your work .
Strong and iconic...powerful and beautiful detailed simplicity.ReplyDelete
Woohoo! I am cheering outloud about winning this print of Lynne's. And the wonderful book, too. I absolutely can't wait to have a piece of Lynne's art displayed in my house. Perfect energy. Thank you, thank you,ReplyDelete
Loved the chessman story! I found one in a thrift store and always wondered where it originated. Love your blog too..always so inspiring!ReplyDelete
Excellent post. What amazing pieces- would love to have a game with those pieces. What a find.ReplyDelete