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The sophistication of medieval culture as demonstrated in the Lewis Chessmen

More coverage of the exhibition of the exhibition of the partially reunited Lewis Chessmen [1] in Edinburgh

Scotsman [2]

Art review: Lewis Chessmen – Unmasked
Published Date: 26 May 2010
By Duncan Macmillan

IN BRAVEHEART, our national hero is impersonated by an Australian. He paints his face like a football fan and seems to have had Billy Connolly as a voice coach. But if that is a travesty of Wallace, the portrayal of his followers as uncouth, unkempt and unwashed is worse. Sadly, however, when they appear in film, our ancestors are generally represented as wild men from the woods, a bunch of hairy bikers strayed from Mad Max, the film in which it was no doubt Mel Gibson’s performance that led someone to imagine he was qualified to play Wallace. That’s not flattering.

The exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland devoted to the Lewis Chessmen should dispose of the hairy biker myth, however. Much of our medieval heritage has been destroyed, but what survives makes it clear that the Scots, Lowland and Highland, were as sophisticated as anybody else in northern Europe. As elsewhere, wealth was largely in the hands of the crown, the church and the aristocracy, but all saw art as a means to prestige, patronage, comfort, or pleasure. The chessmen belonged to this world, but their exact origin is a mystery. It seems most likely they were found in or near the parish of Uig in Lewis around 200 years ago. They first appear on the record in an article in The Scotsman in 1831.

The exhibition includes the whole collection of 93 ivory pieces and they are displayed with a range of other objects to illuminate their mysterious story. The British Museum holds 82 pieces. They were first offered to the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries, now incorporated into the NMS, but the Antiquaries couldn’t afford them. Eleven pieces had already been separated from the main collection, however, and when, much later, these came on the market they were acquired by the Antiquaries.

The chessmen, between three or four inches high, are in the Romanesque style that was universal in northern and western Europe in the 12th century. With a few face piecs and most of the pawns missing, there are enough pieces to indicate four chess sets. The collection itself is not exclusively of chessmen, however. There are also 14 plain ivory disks like the counters we still use for playing board games and which were used then, along with some of the chessmen, for an unpronounceable game called hnefatafl. It sounds like a horse sneezing, but was popular in the Viking world. The chessmen themselves were made at the end of the 12th century, most likely in Norway. A reliquary from Trondheim, Norwegian centre of ivory carving, is closely comparable and a wonderful example of the quality of work produced there. The analysis that the exhibition offers also demonstrates that the chessmen are mostly from one workshop, but made by several different hands and perhaps over several decades.

By application of the hairy biker rule, it was always argued that there could not have been anybody in such a remote backwater as Lewis who was sophisticated enough to own such a treasure. It followed it must have got there by accident, hidden by a shipwrecked merchant passing through on his way from Norway to some more enlightened place was the most popular explanation. The exhibition puts paid to that story. Lewis was not a backwater at all. Part of the Norse sphere of influence, the Western Isles were home to a seaborne princely culture. In the 13th century, it was engaged in a complicated power struggle which eventually saw the Gaelic Lords of the Isles displace their Norwegian overlords. Here a bell shrine from Kilmichael Glassary in Argyll and luxury items like jewellery, a silver spoon, or decorated horse harness also testify to the sophistication of this princely culture. A superb, but very different ivory chessman from Skye bears witness to the existence of high value games pieces in the Isles. Indeed a poem dedicated around 1250, to Angus Mor, Lord of Islay, specifically mentions the ivory chessmen that he had inherited from his father. The same poem also describes Angus as King of Lewis. Uig was also once the centre of power on the island.

A beautiful ivory buckle was found with the chessmen. It is presumed it once fastened the bag, now lost, that held them. This, together with the fact that the chessmen were not all made at the same time, the presence of games pieces for other board games and evidence that several of the chessmen may be replacements for lost pieces, all suggest that the collection was the treasured set of games of some princely person in Lewis. It was hidden for whatever reason and then forgotten. It is most likely, too, that the chessmen came to Lewis, not following a shopping trip to Trondheim, but through the kind of gift giving that was already part of the heroic tradition in Homer’s time and was still central to the shifting politics of the warrior princes who once lived in and fought over the islands of the west.

The figures of the chessmen are so alive, they seem like witnesses to all this. The face pieces, the kings and queens, the bishops, knights and warders (later rooks), are superb. Solemn and intense, they gaze straight out at us. The kings and queens wear crowns and are seated on thrones. Their clothes are rich and precisely described and their thrones have highly decorative backs. The kings are scowling, lost in thought and hold sheathed swords across their knees. The queens all have braided hair. Their right hands support their chins in an attitude meant to imply repose perhaps, but the way it is executed, it could equally be an expression of anxiety. This ambiguity gives them a kind of introspective intensity and it is this pervasive sense of inner life that gives such presence to the group as a whole.

To assuage their anxiety perhaps, and typical of the detail of the carving, two of the queens have drinking horns. The bishops have croziers. Several also have books, while three are raising their right hands in blessing. This is apparently the first time that bishops appear in chess. The place they occupy had previously been taken by elephants. This change in the game became universal and the people who made these pieces, and by extension those who used them, were clearly leaders of fashion. As for the hairy biker image, the bishops are all clean shaven. Most, though not all of the male figures, do have beards, but they are neatly trimmed and their hair, where it is visible, is neatly cut and combed.

The knights are on horseback and have swords and shields and are holding lances. Because of the limited size of the walrus tusks from which the figures are carved, the knights’ horses are diminutive. Nevertheless they are richly caparisoned with dressed manes and trimmed forelocks. The warders are foot-soldiers with swords, helmets and shields. The most varied figures in the collection, all are fierce, but the most startling are showing their teeth and appear to be gnawing the top of their shields. It makes them look crazy and that is apparently exactly what this detail represents. They are “berserkers”, warriors who fought in a wild, drug-induced fury, hence “to go berserk”.

The chessmen give us a glimpse of the forgotten princely culture of the Western Isles. Masterpieces of Romanesque art, the variety, both of detail and of physiognomy in them is very rich. Not just inert gaming pieces, they seem like little people and have an extraordinary presence. It is this that has earned them a place in the popular imagination not matched by any other work of medieval art.

So should we support Alex Salmond in his campaign to have the chessmen returned to Scotland? He won’t get anywhere. The circumstances of their acquisition were legitimate and perfectly straightforward.

The whole question of repatriation of works of art to their place of origin is a non-starter. If the principle was accepted it would empty all the world’s great museums. I don’t see that happening soon and anyway, if place of origin really were the test, the chessmen should go back to Norway.

I think we should settle for the kind of friendly collaboration with the British Museum that this exhibition represents.

• Until 19 September