The Lewis Chessmen: Humor Is Cultural
Medieval figures enchant at the Met
By Betsy Kim
Created: March 20, 2012
Last Updated: March 20, 2012

NEW YORK—The diminutive, delicately carved, 12th century Lewis chessmen face off in an endgame at the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to the art of the Middle Ages.

Their expressive faces, with bulging eyes, down-turned mouths, and gestures with their tiny hands prove a counterintuitive notion. Comical, even adorable, toy-like artwork can achieve historical and international significance.

The exhibit, The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen From the Isle of Lewis, brings 34 of the world’s most famous chess pieces from the British Museum to New York City.

More than 70 chess pieces were unearthed in 1831, buried in a stone chest on the Isle of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland. Based on the style of the carvings and costumes, historians believe artisans created the chessmen between 1150 and 1200, most likely in Trondheim, Norway.

From this original trove, the British Museum owns 67 pieces, and the National Museums Scotland owns 11. Made of walrus tusk, with a few made of whale tooth, the figures have maintained their pristine condition for more than 800 years.

In 2010, BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum produced an educational series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which included the Lewis chessmen. Even more remarkable than their mere survival, these tiny, 1 5/8- to 4-inch characters continue to engender a universal and playful affection.

Kings and Queens

“The funniest ones are the queens because they’ve got their chins in their hands and they look a little bit fed up. People joke about them having toothaches or worrying about the weather,” said James Robinson, the British Museum curator of late medieval collections.

The queens wear open crowns perched upon flowing veils that drape past their shoulders.

Intricately decorative patterns on the back of the kings’ and queens’ thrones resemble 12th century Scandinavian sculptures. One of the queens holds a horn in her tiny fingers. The other rests her elbow in her hand.

The largest pieces, the kings, sit with swords on their laps. Long, thick braids of hair extend down their backs, reflecting the fashion of their time.

Some scholars cite the chessmen as evidence of medieval humor. Robinson, however, believes the ivory carvings were not meant to be comical at the time, but portrayed stylized virtues: The king was an upright, just monarch. The queen was a thoughtful, grieving consort. The queen’s hand upon her face signifies a mournful contemplation of loss.

Robinson compared the queens to a 12th century, bronze Virgin Mary holding her face in the same pose. He noted in that same time period, representations depict Adam making the same gesture, contemplating the expulsion from paradise.

Robinson also referenced sculptures of figures attached to the sides of saints’ shrines. These sculptures have the same facial features of the chessmen. This was typical of the Romanesque aesthetic, which no one finds humorous in large-scale sculptures at churches.

“I think a lot of it is about context. I think we’ve got to be careful when we try to extrapolate backwards in time to say that something we find funny today was funny then,” he said.

Robinson believes today’s response to the Lewis chessmen makes them popular around the world because they speak to human values now. “I don’t think everyone has to be a medieval boffin to get something from them,” he said.

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