by Sara Evans

When I lived in London after college, I was head over heels in love with all things medieval. Living in England was like living in a time machine. Weekends were spent visiting ancient cathedrals, old walking tracks and treasure houses. And whenever I could, I made a beeline to the British Museum, where I spent hours gawking at the Saxon jewels from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels—and the Lewis Chessmen.

The Lewis Chessmen were discovered by a farmer in a field on the remote Isle of Lewis in the wild Outer Hebrides in 1831. The seventy pieces in the horde, which included intricately carved chessmen from four different but incomplete sets, as well as other luxury goods, such as belt buckles, were all carved from walrus ivory and date from the  twelfth century. The pieces are believed by experts to have been made in Trondheim, Norway, the seat of that country’s kings and an important center of ivory carving. How they got to the Isle of Lewis is a mystery that is forever buried in time; we’ll never know how they got there or why, although the Hebrides were then under the rule of Norway, and the Outer Hebrides islands were on a major shipping route.

What is endlessly fascinating about these chess pieces is their amazing individuality. Each piece exudes character and expression, and each piece is an exquisite piece of human sculpture. The kings all sit with their swords on their laps, some with beards, some clean-shaven, while the queens all have their hair hidden under their crowns, with their hands held to their faces, and facial expressions that literally say, “what’s going on here?” out loud. The knights ride shaggy, short Icelandic-type ponies, and wear differing headgear. The bishops, each mitered and holding a Bible and a crook, are also highly individualized. The warders, or rooks, have been identified by experts in Northern mythology as “Berserkers,” warriors so eager to go into battle that one of them is actually biting the top of his shield in excitement. The carving of each piece is utterly exquisite, each demonstrating the hand of a master.

On loan from the British Museum in London, the current exhibition is the largest group of Lewis Chessmen ever to travel outside Britain. The Chessmen are displayed in the large Romanesque Hall of the Cloisters, with its imposing carved stone doorways from 12th and 13th century France, its walls painted with Spanish frescoes and and interior with French ecclesiastical stone carvings. It is the most ideal venue imaginable for the visiting chessmen; they are drawing droves of New Yorkers and visitors alike.

The game of chess is believed to have originated in India in the sixth century. From there it traveled both eastward to Europe and westward to East Asia. In Europe in the Middle Ages, the pieces were changed and adapted to the European environment, with elephants morphing into bishops and viziers into queens. Along with the Lewis Chessmen, the exhibition also includes some breathtaking examples of medieval ivory carvings from the Cloister’s own collection.

The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is one of the great treasures, not only of New York City, but also of the United States. Perched high on a hilltop in the northernmost reaches of Manhattan, in Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters overlook the vast Hudson River and the dramatic Palisades of New Jersey. The original core of the collection was that of George Grey Barnard, a sculptor who returned to the U.S. after World War 1 with a personal collection of artifacts and art from medieval Europe. Realizing the potential of this collection, John D. Rockefeller bankrolled the dismantling of four French monasteries in Europe and their artful reconstruction and reassembly in 1925, brilliantly reconfigured and filled with astonishing treasures. Set on four acres, the Cloisters center around an exquisite medieval garden and is surrounded by a beautifully planted park.   To ensure that the superb views from the Cloisters would be forever maintained, Rockefeller also bought 65 acres of undeveloped land across the river. Designated as a landmark in 1974, the Cloisters today houses over 5,000 important pieces from the Middle Ages. It is the only museum in the country exclusively devoted to medieval Europe. Its walkways and courtyards, chapels and halls, are the nearest one can come to experiencing Europe in the Middle Ages without getting on a plane.

Perhaps the best known and most beloved of all the treasures housed in the Cloisters are the famous Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven breathtaking pieces that are believed to have been designed in France and made in Brussels. Visitors from all over the globe are drawn to the elegant and epic tale of the hunt and capture of the unicorn, and guess at its powerful symbolic meanings. The Unicorn Tapestries are among the greatest treasures of the art world, and a continual source of wonder to all who view them.

(“The Game of Kings” was made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund. It is on view until April 22 at the Cloisters. It is a wonderful exhibit and a perfect excuse to make the trek northward to experience the national treasure that is the Cloisters). u

hen I lived in London after college, I was head over heels in love with all things medieval. Living in England was like living in a time machine. Weekends were spent visiting ancient cathedrals, old walking tracks and treasure houses. And whenever I could, I made a beeline to the British Museum, where I spent hours gawking at the Saxon jewels from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels—and the Lewis Chessmen.

The Lewis Chessmen were discovered by a farmer in a field on the remote Isle of Lewis in the wild Outer Hebrides in 1831. The seventy pieces in the horde, which included intricately carved chessmen from four different but incomplete sets, as well as other luxury goods, such as belt buckles, were all carved from walrus ivory and date from the  twelfth century. The pieces are believed by experts to have been made in Trondheim, Norway, the seat of that country’s kings and an important center of ivory carving. How they got to the Isle of Lewis is a mystery that is forever buried in time; we’ll never know how they got there or why, although the Hebrides were then under the rule of Norway, and the Outer Hebrides islands were on a major shipping route.

What is endlessly fascinating about these chess pieces is their amazing individuality. Each piece exudes character and expression, and each piece is an exquisite piece of human sculpture. The kings all sit with their swords on their laps, some with beards, some clean-shaven, while the queens all have their hair hidden under their crowns, with their hands held to their faces, and facial expressions that literally say, “what’s going on here?” out loud. The knights ride shaggy, short Icelandic-type ponies, and wear differing headgear. The bishops, each mitered and holding a Bible and a crook, are also highly individualized. The warders, or rooks, have been identified by experts in Northern mythology as “Berserkers,” warriors so eager to go into battle that one of them is actually biting the top of his shield in excitement. The carving of each piece is utterly exquisite, each demonstrating the hand of a master.

On loan from the British Museum in London, the current exhibition is the largest group of Lewis Chessmen ever to travel outside Britain. The Chessmen are displayed in the large Romanesque Hall of the Cloisters, with its imposing carved stone doorways from 12th and 13th century France, its walls painted with Spanish frescoes and interiors filled with French ecclesiastical stone carvings. It is the most ideal venue imaginable for the visiting chessmen; they are drawing droves of New Yorkers and visitors alike.

The game of chess is believed to have originated in India in the sixth century. From there it traveled westward to Europe and eastward to East Asia. In Europe in the Middle Ages, the pieces were changed and adapted to the European environment, with elephants morphing into bishops and viziers into queens. Along with the Lewis Chessmen, the exhibition also includes some breathtaking examples of medieval ivory carvings from the Cloister’s own collection.

The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is one of the great treasures, not only of New York City, but also of the United States. Perched high on a hilltop in the northernmost reaches of Manhattan, in Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters overlook the vast Hudson River and the dramatic Palisades of New Jersey. The original core of the collection was that of George Grey Barnard, a sculptor who returned to the U.S. after World War 1 with a personal collection of artifacts and art from medieval Europe. Realizing the potential of this collection, John D. Rockefeller bankrolled the dismantling of four French monasteries in Europe and their artful reconstruction and reassembly in 1925, brilliantly reconfigured and filled with astonishing treasures. Set on four acres, the Cloisters center around an exquisite medieval garden and are surrounded by a beautifully planted park.   To ensure that the superb views from the Cloisters would be forever maintained, Rockefeller also bought 65 acres of undeveloped land across the river. Designated as a landmark in 1974, the Cloisters today houses over 5,000 important pieces from the Middle Ages. It is the only museum in the country exclusively devoted to medieval Europe. Its walkways and courtyards, chapels and halls, are the nearest one can come to experiencing Europe in the Middle Ages without getting on a plane.

Perhaps the best known and most beloved of all the treasures housed in the Cloisters are the famous Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven breathtaking pieces that are believed to have been designed in France and made in Brussels. Visitors from all over the globe are drawn to the elegant and epic tale of the hunt and capture of the unicorn, and guess at its powerful symbolic meanings. The Unicorn Tapestries are among the greatest treasures of the art world, and a continual source of wonder to all who view them.

(“The Game of Kings” was made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund. It is on view until April 22 at the Cloisters. It is a wonderful exhibit and a perfect excuse to make the trek northward to experience the national treasure that is the Cloisters).

 

To read the entire article, and view all the photos, please view the Art of the Times winter – spring 2012 issue as a PDF above.

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