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.

    Like

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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
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Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
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