Featured Object: Renaissance Chess King overview image

Featured Object: Renaissance Chess King

  • Post Date10/20/2016
  • AuthorSimone Kaiser, Beth Watkins
  • Reading Time3 minute read

This ivory chess king was most likely created in Western Europe in the 16th century. The king, about 2½ inches high, wears a crown, a sash across his chest, and a skirt. The piece was purchased in Germany in 1936 by Neil C. Brooks, professor of Germanic Languages and director of the University’s Museum of European Cultures, which opened in 1913 in Lincoln Hall.

History of Chess

The origins of chess are not known with certainty, and artifacts from similar, somewhat related games have been found in Russia, Central Asia, South Asia, and China. The version we are familiar with today probably originated in India around 1,500 years ago. Chaturanga (a Sanskrit term meaning “four divisions,” perhaps in reference to a battle formation described in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata) featured 2 important characteristics common to all later variants of chess that distinguish it from other games like checkers: to win, the king must be captured, and the different types of pieces have different powers. This game quickly spread to Persia and from there throughout the Byzantine and Arabian Empires. By the 10th century, Muslims had brought chess to southern Europe, and it also spread to northern Europe through Vikings who were in contact with Slavic cultures. Chess has always been a game with analogies to battle, but the set of rules in general use now, including the powers of the piece we call the queen, developed differently in various regions and became consolidated over time.

In Europe, chess emerged subsequently as an upper-class and aristocratic leisure game associated with mathematical ratios, tactics, and military strategies and became a metaphor for battle and war, predominantly played by men. Although cast by the Catholic Church as immoral, chess had also been the subject of poems and other writings during the Renaissance, discussing the significance and moves of the figures (most importantly, kings, queens and, at that time, bishops) and valuing the educational importance and intellectual superiority of the game. However, a man and a woman opposed over a chess board had associations of sexual tension, seduction, and masculine power, in real life as well as when depicted in works of art.

Use of Ivory

Ivory has been used to make chess pieces since at least the 12th century, as evidenced by the famous Viking-made Lewis Chessmen. Ivory is derived from the tusks and teeth of animals and is a very precious material that has been used since ancient times for creating a wide array of items for ornamental and practical purposes, such as carvings and piano keys. During the era our chess piece was probably made, ivory in Europe was generally imported from Africa. A main center of ivory trade was the Italian seaport of Genoa, the first landing for European traders arriving from Africa.

  • picture of the chess king