Check Mates

I’VE NEVER BEEN A CHESS PLAYER. I learned the moves in childhood, but the strategic thinking the game required never fit my brain. I was the Parcheesi, Dominos, Chinese Checkers type. More patterns, less intellect.
Chess sets, on the other hand, have always intrigued me because of their stately beauty and the way they mirror social hierarchies and roles. The twelfth- or thirteenth-century ivory chessmen (and women—queens, you know) from the northern Scottish island of Lewis are the best reason in years to trek to The Cloisters. Not that you need a reason beyond the glories of Fort Tryon Park and the hushed and timeless quality of the museum itself, especially in the austerity of early winter. The Cloisters looks good in gray.
The chess people were probably made in Scandinavia: Lewis was then part of Norway, not Scotland. Diminutive as they are (the biggest is four inches tall), the pieces have such personality that I crouched down by the display cases to see their features better. Each group, or caste, seems to have a different emotional character, and there is variation within the group as well: The kings are thoughtful, and perhaps vain about their elaborate long hair; the queens hold one hand to their cheeks and have an anxious air. The wardens (the medieval equivalent of the present-day castle-shaped rook) are stalwart and whimsical; the bishops, hunched and guarded. Earnest knights sit on well-behaved ponies.
The pawns, however, consist only of octagonal domes. Sad. No doubt this treatment mirrored the attitude of the aristocrats who played the game: Serfs and peasants and foot soldiers were barely human. Ah, the medieval world view. It doesn’t do to romanticize an era where life for most people really was nasty, brutish, and short.  
This company of players really gets around, traveling from The British Museum—which owns most of them, 80-odd pieces—to other cities in the U.K. as well as to the U.S. and Asia. They even did a guest turn in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Go to to learn more; search for The Lewis Chessmen.)
Shopper’s note: I got the t-shirt. Three wardens are pictured on the front, and this sturdy trio gives me a good warm feeling—as if with sword, helmet, and shield, they are reaching out over the centuries to keep me safe.