Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Lewis Chessmen - Medieval Cartooning

The Lewis Chessmen - Norse Craft in C12 Scotland

The Lewis Chessmen were found sometime prior to 1831, 15 feet down a sandbank in a small dry-built stone chamber at the Bay of Uig, west coast of the Isle of Lewis, Scottish Outer Hebrides. There are 93 pieces, forming parts of four or five chess sets, with two complete. Most are made of walrus ivory with a few of whale teeth.

The chessmen are believed to have been made in Norway in the 12th century (perhaps by Trondheim craftsmen, where similar examples have been found), at a time when that Scandinavian country ruled groups of islands off the coast of Scotland. They are believed to have been transported to wealthy Norse settlements on the east coast.

They are now mostly in the British Museum with some pieces in the Museum of Scotland.

Now to my cartooning theory.

These pieces were probably for wealthy Norse game-playing ex-pat's in the upper British Isles, both adults and children. Thus their meanings did not necessarily need to be given in a somber realistic mode. The figures strike me as somewhat comically presented - wide-eyed, squat, and at times gesturing most melodramatically, as with the rooks or beserkers (below, extreme left) who bite their shields in battle fury. I think I get this look when I do road rage. Must check in the rear view mirror next time! Maybe I bite the top of the steering wheel?

This cartooning mode is also reflected in the non-realistic scale of things to each other - the knights ride teeny tiny horses (aka Anthony, 'Sex in the City'). Though of course they may be Shetland ponies - it would be the right place!

The kings below seem suitably but exaggeratedly stern, grave and dignified. The queens as well, but their hand-on-right-cheek gestures appear to signal some kind of softer nature, more emotionally able to react with compassion when warranted. Like the Virgin Mary of Christianity, an approachable and caring interceding figure.

I am particularly drawn to the bishop-ey person, center stage in the display below in the Museum of Scotland. Very Lord of the Rings-ish - Gandall, I think.

Also worth noticing are the intricate and intertwining Celtic designs on the backs of the chairs in which some figures are seated. And also seen on the pawns, as tombstones, in the first photograph above.

The British Museum sells exact replicas of these rare and extraordinary pieces, and I have lots of them - just wandering mysteriously about my home!

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