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A Game of Chess

Mirrorback
ca. 1320-1330 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

This is an ivory mirrorback made in France or the Lower Rhine 9Cologne), Germany in about 1320-1330. The piece is decorated with a the scene of alady and gentleman playing a Game of Chess.

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.

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.

Object details

Categories
Object type
TitleA Game of Chess (generic title)
Materials and techniques
Carved elephant ivory
Brief description
Mirror back, ivory, A Game of Chess, French or possibly German (Lower Rhine, Cologne), ca. 1320-30
Physical description
Ivory mirrorback. A young man and lady are shown seated in a tent, playing chess at a pedestal table. The man's left hand holds the pole in the middle of the tent and he moves a chess piece with his right hand; the lady wearing a wimple and with her hair gathered in two buns but without a veil, raises her right hand in an attitude of dismay and holds two of her opponent's pieces in her left hand. Within a border of semicicular arches with grotesque heads in the spandrils; the rim is plain.
Dimensions
  • Height: 7.5cm
  • Width: 7.4cm
  • Weight: 2g
Object history
In the possession of John Webb, London, by 1862 (London 1862, cat. no. 140); purchased from Webb in 1867, for £8.

Production
Rhine
Subjects depicted
Summary
This is an ivory mirrorback made in France or the Lower Rhine 9Cologne), Germany in about 1320-1330. The piece is decorated with a the scene of alady and gentleman playing a Game of Chess.

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.

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.
Bibliographic references
  • 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
  • Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1927-1929, Part II, p. 47
  • Maskell, William. Ivories Ancient and Medieval in the South Kensington Museum. London: Chapman & Hall, 1872, pp. 85-86
  • 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. 313
  • Koechlin, R., Les Ivoires gothiques français, 3 vols, Paris, 1924 (reprinted Paris 1968) I, p. 388, II, cat. no. 1045
  • 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. 576-577
  • 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. 313
  • 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. 576-577, cat. no. 197
Collection
Accession number
224-1867

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Record createdOctober 14, 2004
Record URL
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