Accession number: 
1685 A no. 587
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford

Chess man

Source: Ashmolean Museum, Accession No. 1685 A no. 587.

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Dimensions. Height 75 mm; Width (max) 58 mm

Description. Walrus-ivory carving representing two mounted knights in combat. Each is clad in a hauberk with the sleeves extended to form mufflers (mittens), and with a surcoat over, belted at the waist. Each wears a flat-topped barrel helm with a horizontal eye-slot and cruciform face-guard. The upper leg of one knight is marked with incised parallel lines, probably indicating quilted defenses known as gamboised cuisses, while stab-marks on the lower leg imply mail chausses. Fastenings for spurs are indicated on the feet, but the goads are lacking in each case. Each knight carries a curving heater-shaped shield with incised margins, one marked by single lines and the other by double lines. One is armed with a broad sword with a D-shaped pommel, straight guard, and fullered blade, which he brandishes at head height; the other has a lance, held overarm and point upwards. The latter figure is curiously twisted, his right foot reversed in the stirrup and his head facing backwards. The saddles have high pommels and cantles and rest on plain saddle-cloths; there are no indications of girths. The stirrups hang from the pommel and are worn long; the stirrup-irons are not detailed, each being shown merely as a split at the end of the leather. Both horses wear breast-bands and bridles with annular cheek-pieces. The horses themselves have long manes and tails, the tail of one being braided. Traces of gilt survive on the belts and harness of both figures and on the shield of one of them: traces of dark pigment can be seen on the mail armour of both and may also originally have covered their helms. The two figures are separated at front and rear by head-high foliate scrolls which spring from the base of the piece and fill the spaces otherwise left in the composition.

Commentary. Although Murray, author of the standard work on the history of chess, declared himself unconvinced that this carving representing two knights was necessarily a chess-man, subsequent publication of a series of closely related but more conventional pieces, each featuring a single knight, has put its identification beyond doubt. Differing opinions have been expressed concerning the origins of the piece in the Tradescant collection. While scholars have favoured both French and English derivations, the latter seems to be the more generally accepted, for there are similarities between the chess-man and the manuscript illuminations of Matthew Paris and his contemporaries.

Museum Id. No:

1656 p. 38: Divers rare and antient pieces carved in Ivory

1685 A no. 587: Duo pugiles equestres ex Ebore sculpti

Credits: Abridged from J.J.L. Whiteley, 'Chess-man', in Arthur MacGregor (ed.),Tradescant's Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, 1983), no. 236, pp. 284-5.