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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