English or Scandinavian, circa 1400
- Chesspiece representing a Queen
- walrus ivory
- 6.7cm., 2 5/8 in.
Few late medieval chesspieces are as finely carved or well preserved as the present example. The principal comparisons for this games piece, a King formerly in Schloss Sigmaringen and a Knight in Copenhagen, are neither as elaborate nor have the soft marine ivory worn as gracefully. Each represents a figure on horseback surrounded by guards, pages and courtiers. These attendants not only emphasise the importance of the piece within the game but also gave the carver an opportunity to strengthen the base whilst freely adding some characterful genre figures. The Charlemagne King, an Indian piece from the 9th century in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, epitomises this practice with rows of archers riding with the King on an elephant and horsemen circling the base.
Given their scale and different conventions for the representation of chess pieces, it is often difficult to determine which role medieval chesspieces fulfilled in their set. Today, and in such groups as the Lewis Chessmenn in the British Museum, a horse is indicative of the Knights. But here the veil, long flowing robes and the suggestion of a crown might indicate the piece served as the Queen. As can be seen in the piece in Copenhagen, Knights and Kings tend to have armed guards whereas the dress of the attendants here suggests they are female courtiers, male pages and clerics; a more fitting entourage for a Queen.
The game of chess originated in India, where its predecessor chaturanga was played for several millennia before it started evolving into the present game around the 6th century AD. This reached Europe through the Muslim world and Spain a few centuries later and was firmly rooted here by the Middle Ages. Its association with strategy and intelligence established it as 'the Royal game'. Such was the popularity of chess, it was frequently used by the clergy to illustrate their moral lessons, thus prompting further reverence for the game.
H. Sprinz, Die Bildwerke der Fürstlich Hohenzollernschen Sammlung Sigmaringen, cat. Fürstlich-Hohenzollernsches Museum Sigmaringen, Stuttgart, no. 15; D.M. Liddell, Chessmen, New York, 1937, pp. 131-132; V. Keats, Chessmen for collectors, London, 1985