British Museum blog

Going berserk: the Lewis chessmen in New York


James Robinson, curator, British Museum

Thirty four of the Lewis chessmen have travelled to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York. This is the largest number ever to have left the British Isles since their discovery on the Isle of Lewis in 1831.

The Cloisters is a truly exceptional museum devoted entirely to medieval art and architecture and the chessmen look perfectly at home. They occupy five cases in the Romanesque Hall, a space that resembles a great medieval hall where a lord – or King – might once have played with chesspieces just like these.

The Lewis chessmen fire our imagination because they are miniature people carved with great skill and intricacy from walrus tusks. They are generally considered to be mournful, grumpy or comic because of their squat forms, protuberant eyes and down-turned mouths but they are also works of great beauty. This is especially evident from the seated figures of the kings, queens and some of the bishops, all of whom occupy elaborately decorated thrones.

SBerserker pieces in the British Museum collection

Berserker pieces in the British Museum collection

One of the most significant pieces on loan to the Cloisters is the Berserker. This unusual character may not be recognisable to most players of chess but at the time the Lewis chessmen were made in the twelfth century, the Berserker took the place of the modern day rook. He stands armed with a sword and exposes his huge teeth with which he bites into his shield. It is this gesture that identifies him as a Berserker – a fierce warrior drawn from Norse mythology that bites his shield in a self-induced frenzy prior to battle.

The Berserker has been imaginatively used in the merchandise on sale at the Cloisters where T-shirts emblazoned with the Berserker’s features broadcast “Berserk for Chess’ – I’ll be wearing mine in London!

The Cloisters exhibition, The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, opens on 15 November and runs until 22 April 2012 during which time New Yorkers will undoubtedly develop Lewis chessmen frenzy.

Find out more about the Lewis chessmen on the British Museum website

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  1. Lotte Heinisch says:

    Hello, I spent a holidy in Scotland last August/September, including a boat trip to the Outer Hebrides. Arriving in Stornoway I could not miss all the signposts advertising an exhibition of the “Lewis Chessmen” then held in their Museum nan Eilean. Being another rainy day and very well suited for a visit to a museum, we gave it a try. Though I had been many times to the British Museum in London, I had never before chanced to meet these chessmen there. I have to admit, I never heave heard of them either. We were simply delighted by them and overjoyed to see them. I learned of the berserkers only later when reading the splendid booklet “The Lewis Chessmen, Unmasked” and therefore did not notice the warders who bit their shields, the berserks. During my latest visit to London last February I went to see them in the British Museum, of course. Though many of them had made a trip to New York, I was delighted to meet the rest of them again. I’m looking forward to meeting the whole hoard on occassion of one of my next trips to London.

    By the way, I ended up at this website because a friend of mine wanted to know more about the berserks. I will refer her to this site to enable her to enjoy these cute figures as well.

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Writer and women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft was born #onthisday in 1759.
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You can see this figure in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
Bronze statuette of Zeus. Roman period, 1st–2nd century AD, said to be from Hungary.
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