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Mirrorback - A Game of Chess

A Game of Chess

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Paris (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1320-1330 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved elephant ivory

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery, case 8

This is a mirrorback made in about 1320-30 in Paris, France. It represents a lady and a gentleman playing chess.

The game of chess represented both love and war in the Middle Ages and the contest is mentioned in many of the romances of the period, including the story of Tristan and Iseult. It appears on caskets, combs, plaques and mirror covers throughout the fourteenth century in both France and Germany.

The major period of production of ivories lasted only a little beyond the middle of the fourteenth century. . .The waning of the French ivory industry was largely due to the disastrous financial effects of the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453), yet there was no immediate end of the use of ivory as a material. The centre of the trade moved north to the new commercial centres of Flanders and the Netherlands, and there the major production was only of religious subjects (Randall 1994). With the exception of bone chess boxes and ivory combs with garden scenes and hunts, secular subject matter virtually disappeared from the scene.

Ivory combs, together with mirror cases and gravoirs for parting the hair, formed an essential part of the trousse de toilette or étui (dressing case) of the typical wealthy lady or gentleman in the Gothic period.

Gothic ivory mirror backs survive in considerable numbers. The ivory cases themselves, usually between 8 and 14 cm in diameter, consisted of two paired ivory discs (described here as ‘mirror backs’), often with four crawling monsters or lions (or leaves) carved around the outer edge. These ornamental features would transform the circle into a square and make the opening of the case easier, although their vulnerability to breakage is now all too evident.
The majority of the ivory mirror cases and their leather boxes must have been purchased as expensive gifts, to be presented by the wealthy élite to their friends, family and lovers, and often as wedding presents. The subject matter of the mirror backs was almost exclusively secular.

Physical description

Ivory mirror case carved in low relief with a lady and gentleman playing chess. A young man and a lady with a veil and wimple are shown playing chess at a table (which appears to be set on the central pole rather than a separate pedestal) in a tent. The man is cross-legged and he holds the pole with his left hand, as is customary. With his right hand he takes a piece, while his opponent seems about to make her move and holds two captured pieces in her left hand.

Place of Origin

Paris (made)


ca. 1320-1330 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved elephant ivory


Height: 10.7 cm, Width: 10.7 cm

Object history note

In the possession of John Webb, London, by 1862 (London 1862, cat. no. 139); purchased from Webb in 1867, for £16.

Descriptive line

Mirror back, ivory, A Game of Chess, French (Paris), ca. 1320-1330

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1867. Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol. 1. London : Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868., p. 8.
Koechlin, R. In: Histoire de l'art: Depuis les Premiers Temps Chrétiens Jusqu'à nos Jours. II, pt. 1. p. 496, I. p. 388, II, no. 1050
Maskell, William. Ivories Ancient and Medieval in the South Kensington Museum. London: Chapman & Hall, 1872, p. 85
part II, pp. 574-575
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014
p. 312
Westwood, J O. A descriptive catalogue of the Fictile Ivories in the South Kensington Museum. With an Account of the Continental Collections of Classical and Mediaeval Ivories. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1876
p. 496
Koechlin, R., 'Les Ivoires Gothiques', In: Michel, A., ed. Histoire de l'Art depuis les premiers temps chrétiens jusqu'à nos jours, II/1, Paris, 1906
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014, part II, pp. 574-575, cat. no. 196




Carving; Low relief

Subjects depicted

Man; Chess; Lady; Tent


Sculpture; Household objects; Accessories


Sculpture Collection

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