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Mirror back - A Game of Chess

A Game of Chess

  • Object:

    Mirror back

  • Place of origin:

    Paris (or Cologne, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1320 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Elphant ivory

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    On short term loan out for exhibition

This is a mirror back, made in Paris or Cologne, in about 1320, depicting a game of chess.
In the period between 1300 and 1325 workshops in Paris enjoyed a thriving market for secular ivory carvings. They produced mirror-cases, combs and gravoirs (hair parters), often selling them as sets in leather dressing cases. Subjects from romance literature appeared frequently. 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.

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

Physical description

A young man and lady are shown seated in a tent playing chess. The man's left arm is around the pole in the middle of the tent and he moves a chess piece with his right hand; the lady, her right hand raised apparently in dismay, holds three of her opponent's pieces in her left hand. Both figures wear jewelled fillets. On the rim are four crawling monsters.

Place of Origin

Paris (or Cologne, made)


ca. 1320 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Elphant ivory


Height: 8.7 cm, Width: 8.4 cm

Object history note

In the collection of Albert Denison, Baron Londesborough (1805-60) and then by descent until the Londesborough sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 10 July 1888, lot 757 (bought Murray); Emile Gavet collection, Paris; Gavet sale, Paris, 31 May - 9 June 1897, lot 329; Collection of George Salting, London; Salting bequest, 1910 (no. 2004).

Descriptive line

Mirror case, ivory, a Game of Chess, France (Paris) or Lower Rhine (Cologne), ca. 1320

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

Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. Part II. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1929, p. 46
'Salting Bequest (A. 70 to A. 1029-1910) / Murray Bequest (A. 1030 to A. 1096-1910)'. In: List of Works of Art Acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum (Department of Architecture and Sculpture). London: Printed under the Authority of his Majesty's Stationery Office, by Eyre and Spottiswoode, Limited, East Harding Street, EC, p. 93
I, pp. 376, 388, 435, 481-82, II, cat. no. 1044
Koechlin, R., Les Ivoires gothiques français, 3 vols, Paris, 1924 (reprinted Paris 1968)
p. 209
Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle. Ivoires du Moyen Age. Fribourg, 1978
part II, pp. 572-573
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014
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. 572-573, cat. no. 195



Subjects depicted

Tent; Table; Man; Chess; Lady


Accessories; Games; Sculpture


Sculpture Collection

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