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Mirror case - Knight and a Lady playing chess

Knight and a Lady playing chess

  • Object:

    Mirror case

  • Place of origin:

    Paris, France (made)

  • Date:

    1300-1325 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Ivory

  • Museum number:

    803-1891

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval and Renaissance, room 10a, case 4

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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, and the three finest examples, of which this object is one, appear to come from the same Paris atelier, and perhaps from the hand of the same carver. The two other objects are in The Cleveland Museum of Art (J.H. Wade Fund 40.1200) and the Musée du Louvre (Koechlin 1924, 2: no.1053). In the Cleveland example, which is missing its corner terminals, the lady points to the chessboard rather than raising her hand in surprise, and in the Louvre example two witnesses have been added in the background, but all other details are perceptibly the same. The carver, whose composition was nearly perfect, amused himself in different mirror cases with portraying variant reactions to the game and making slight changes in the costume and the curtains.

Writing about the Louvre example, Michael Camille has indicated the sexually suggestive elements of the 'mise-en-scène':

‘That courtly couples were constrained by a different set of moves, which made love into a game, can be seen in an ivory mirror case representing a couple playing chess. Even when a couple are shown at the second stage of love and not physically touching as here, there are hints that the third, fourth and fifth stages are quickly approaching. This mirror is an elaborate allegory of desire in which the man is about to “check” his mate as he crosses one leg elegantly over the other in expectation and grasps the central tent pole like a phallic lance. This thrusting imagery continues in the presentation of the lady, whose body has literally been gouged out of the creamy ivory in a series of swaying Gothic folds, emphasising her penetrability. Even the parted curtains that frame the whole intimate scene are . . . a well-understood sign, not only of the curtains around a bed, but also the anatomical opening of the woman’s body, which cannot be represented as such. ..
. . .Chess was the perfect allegorical device because it articulated the playful tension and the often violent conflict inherent in the strategies of seduction that formed the medieval art of love.’

Secular Ivory Carving in Paris:

The flowering of secular ivory carving took place in Paris in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, and a variety of subjects from romance literature and daily life were represented on boxes, mirror-cases, combs, gravoirs (hair parters) and knife handles for what was apparently a considerable market . . .

. . .The ivories for secular use that appeared in profusion at the end of the first quarter of the fourteenth century were carved in the sophisticated relief style of the Paris religious ivories, which had been developed over the preceeding century in the production of diptychs and triptychs showing the lives of Christ and the Virgin.

. . . While the carved boxes were the most lavish, largest and most expensive of secular ivory products, mirror cases and combs were the most numerous and of greater utility. The guild of pigniers (comb makers) sold combs and mirrors together, sometimes with a hair parter in a leather case. Many accounts survive, such as one of the duke of Burgundy in 1367:

'Jean de Couilli, pignier, demourant à Paris, 5 fr., pour un estui garni de pignes et de mireour d’yvoire, qu’il a baillez et deliverez pour Mgr. à Guillemin Hannot, son barbier et valet de chambre.' (Jean de Couilli, comb maker, living in Paris, 5 francs for a case including combs and a mirror of ivory, which he has taken and delivered for Mgr. Guillemin Hannot, his barber and valet de chambre).
(Prost 1902, 266, no. 1460)

More mirror cases have survived than any other form of secular ivory. They are thin discs carved on the face with scenes of lovers, the Attack on the Castle of Love, or other subjects, while the back was so designed that a polished metal disc could be inserted to serve as a mirror. The ivory plaque was squared off for ease of handling and stability when set on a shelf by four corner terminals, each in the form of a small, long-eared biped monster with a long tail. The creature was in standard use by mirror makers, though an occasional example has human bipeds or lions. Many of the cases are also pierced so that they could be hung on the wall . . .

. . . 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.

(Richard H. Randall Jr., Images In Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age, 1997, 63-79).

Physical description

Ivory, carved in relief, depicting a lady and gentleman playing at chess in a tent, with the tent pole placed just behind the table, and the tent flaps tied back and draped at the sides. The male player holds the tent pole firmly in his left hand while making a move on the board with his right. His legs are crossed, curiously. The lady raises her right hand in apparent surprise at her opponent's move, and holds a captured piece in her left hand. The lady wears a wimple and gorget, and loose robe; the man wears a hooded robe, with the hood down, and a fillet or chaplet on his head. Bipedal monsters, with long ears and tails, form the corner terminals.

Place of Origin

Paris, France (made)

Date

1300-1325 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

Ivory

Dimensions

Height: 10.7 cm, Width: 10.5 cm, Depth: 1.7 cm, Weight: 0.1 kg

Object history note

From the Zouche Collection.

Historical context note

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, and the three finest examples, of which this object is one, appear to come from the same Paris atelier, and perhaps from the hand of the same carver. The two other objects are in The Cleveland Museum of Art (J.H. Wade Fund 40.1200) and the Musée du Louvre (Koechlin 1924, 2: no.1053). In the Cleveland example, which is missing its corner terminals, the lady points to the chessboard rather than raising her hand in surprise, and in the Louvre example two witnesses have been added in the background, but all other details are perceptibly the same. The carver, whose composition was nearly perfect, amused himself in different mirror cases with portraying variant reactions to the game and making slight changes in the costume and the curtains.

Writing about the Louvre example, Michael Camille has indicated the sexually suggestive elements of the 'mise-en-scène':

‘That courtly couples were constrained by a different set of moves, which made love into a game, can be seen in an ivory mirror case representing a couple playing chess. Even when a couple are shown at the second stage of love and not physically touching as here, there are hints that the third, fourth and fifth stages are quickly approaching. This mirror is an elaborate allegory of desire in which the man is about to “check” his mate as he crosses one leg elegantly over the other in expectation and grasps the central tent pole like a phallic lance. This thrusting imagery continues in the presentation of the lady, whose body has literally been gouged out of the creamy ivory in a series of swaying Gothic folds, emphasising her penetrability. Even the parted curtains that frame the whole intimate scene are . . . a well-understood sign, not only of the curtains around a bed, but also the anatomical opening of the woman’s body, which cannot be represented as such. ..
. . .Chess was the perfect allegorical device because it articulated the playful tension and the often violent conflict inherent in the strategies of seduction that formed the medieval art of love.’

Secular Ivory Carving in Paris:

The flowering of secular ivory carving took place in Paris in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, and a variety of subjects from romance literature and daily life were represented on boxes, mirror-cases, combs, gravoirs (hair parters) and knife handles for what was apparently a considerable market . . .

. . .The ivories for secular use that appeared in profusion at the end of the first quarter of the fourteenth century were carved in the sophisticated relief style of the Paris religious ivories, which had been developed over the preceeding century in the production of diptychs and triptychs showing the lives of Christ and the Virgin.

. . . While the carved boxes were the most lavish, largest and most expensive of secular ivory products, mirror cases and combs were the most numerous and of greater utility. The guild of pigniers (comb makers) sold combs and mirrors together, sometimes with a hair parter in a leather case. Many accounts survive, such as one of the duke of Burgundy in 1367:

'Jean de Couilli, pignier, demourant à Paris, 5 fr., pour un estui garni de pignes et de mireour d’yvoire, qu’il a baillez et deliverez pour Mgr. à Guillemin Hannot, son barbier et valet de chambre.' (Jean de Couilli, comb maker, living in Paris, 5 francs for a case including combs and a mirror of ivory, which he has taken and delivered for Mgr. Guillemin Hannot, his barber and valet de chambre).
(Prost 1902, 266, no. 1460)

More mirror cases have survived than any other form of secular ivory. They are thin discs carved on the face with scenes of lovers, the Attack on the Castle of Love, or other subjects, while the back was so designed that a polished metal disc could be inserted to serve as a mirror. The ivory plaque was squared off for ease of handling and stability when set on a shelf by four corner terminals, each in the form of a small, long-eared biped monster with a long tail. The creature was in standard use by mirror makers, though an occasional example has human bipeds or lions. Many of the cases are also pierced so that they could be hung on the wall . . .

. . . 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.

(Richard H. Randall Jr., Images In Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age, 1997, 63-79).

Descriptive line

Ivory, mirror-case, French, second quarter of the 14th century

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

Randall Jr., Richard H. Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Agee (Detroit, Mich. : Detroit Institute of Arts ; Princeton, N.J. : in association with Princeton University Press, c1997.) pp 233
Jean-Campbell, C. 'Courting, Harlotry and the Art of Gothic Ivory Carving', GESTA XXXIV/1 (The International Center of Medieval Art, 1995.) p 15, Fig 5.
Camille, M.. The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire (London: Laurence King, c1998.) (for comparable example in Louvre).
Grodecki, Louis, Ivoires Francais, (Paris: Libraire Larousse, 1947), p.116, pl. XL
Baron, Françoise. . . [et al, Les Fastes du Gothique: le siècle de Charles V: Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 9 octobre 1981-1er février 1882, (Paris, Ministère de la culture, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, c. 1981)
Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of carvings in Ivory. London, Board of Education, 1929. pp. 47
Images in Ivory: precious objects of the Gothic Age. Princeton. 1997. cat. no. 58
Gabait- Chopin. Ivoires médiévaux. 2003. fig. 127a. pp. 352.

Exhibition History

Art of the Courts of France and England from 1259-1328 (National Gallery of Canada 28/04/1972-02/07/1972)

Production Note

Paris School

Materials

Ivory

Subjects depicted

Love; Chess

Categories

Sculpture; Games

Collection code

SCP

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Qr_O88470
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