21 January 2012

Medieval Art: The Lewis Chessmen at The Cloisters

 Several of the Lewis Chessmen.

On January 19, spouse, daughter and I went to The Cloisters, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located at the very northwestern tip of Manhattan. There are many reasons to visit The Cloisters, but on this occasion we were on a mission to see the Lewis Chessmen, medieval chess pieces from the British Museum.  Formally titled The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, the display of these amazing survivors from the twelfth century, carved from walrus ivory, ends April 22, 2012.  More info on The Cloisters can be found at http://www.metmuseum.org/visit/visit-the-cloisters/ 

 Photography of the chess pieces was not allowed, 
so this is my only onsite special exhibit image.

Note that for those with stamina, your paid admission to The Cloisters also entitles you to same-day admission to The Metropolitan's main museum, and if you buy an audio guide at The Cloisters, as we did, save the receipt and get an audio guide for free at the Met.

King chess piece.

The artisan(s) who made these pieces modeled the drapery of robes and tunics with care on both seated and standing figures; even the horse trappings have a sense of weight and fluidity.

If these pieces look vaguely familiar, it may be because they inspired the chess pieces used by Ron Weasley and Harry Potter when Ron instructs Harry in Wizard's Chess at Hogwarts. The set designers cannily adapted existing, historical objects to create props and this authenticity of the source material assists the movie-goer in suspending disbelief.  

The story of the Lewis chessmen, so-called because they were dug up by a Scottish crofter on the Isle of Lewis in 1831, is a tale with a bit of mystery and intrigue.  James Robinson, curator of medieval collections at the British Museum, recounts the tale of the seventy-eight known pieces in a concise, profusely illustrated book The Lewis Chessmen, a volume of the British Museum Objects in Focus series. (ISBN 978 0 7141 5023 9)

Ron introduces Harry to Wizard's Chess in  
Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone.
Ron's set is based on the Lewis Chessmen.

Reproduction chess set. Image source:

Painted Wooden Box, 1200 - 1225, Southern France.

The wooden box above features warriors with colorful helmets and shields similar to those sported by the chessmen; there is speculation that some of the chessmen were painted red, as shown in the reproduction set and in the Harry Potter film.

Pink marble colonnade from the Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa 
monastery in the Pyrenees Mountains.

Of course, a highlight of The Cloisters, is, well, the medieval cloisters, abandoned structures painstakingly removed from their European homes, imported to America, and reconstructed on a Hudson River palisade, courtesy John D. Rockefeller and his architect Charles Collens.  

So, having admired the chessmen, we viewed other products of the medieval imagination, including these fantastical carved capitals in the Cuxa Cloister, above, including imagery of mermaids, and of lions devouring hapless mortals.

 Column capital, St.-Guilhem Cloister, details.
Left, the mouth of Hell. 
Right, above, sinners in chains.
Right, lower, eternal torment.

We also strolled through the St.-Guilhem cloister, originally from Montpellier, France.  Most of the column capitals here were adapted from Roman prototypes, and feature foliate motifs recalling acanthus leaf Corinthian capitals. However, a few of the capitals are representational narratives, such as the sculpture above.  My daughter, enrolled in an MBA program, is enduring job interviews for summer positions, so we nick-named this capital "Recruiting Season."

 Unicorn in captivity. 

Perhaps the best-known treasure of The Cloisters is the Unicorn tapestry series, late medieval (1495-1505) masterpieces whose colors still glow and enchant.

After I posted this entry, it was brought to my attention that replicas of some of the chess pieces are available from the shop of the National Museum of Scotland, http://shop.nms.ac.uk/categories/Gifts/Lewis-Chessmen/Replica-Pieces/ and from a retailer in Bath, England, http://www.regencychess.co.uk/