Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum
Hegira 4th–5th centuries / 10th–11th centuries
Height 7 cm, diameter 6.4 cm
Fatimid or Norman
Southern Italy or Sicily.
The game of chess probably has its origin in India and reached the Islamic world via Sassanid Persia. Abstract game figures made out of precious materials like ivory, such as this chess piece, were characteristically used by Arabs. Other materials, such as rock-crystal, were also exploited. A number of pieces made from rock-crystal became part of the treasure collections that belonged to European churches.
Its size alone makes this chess piece remarkable and it must have needed the largest and most expensive section of a tusk of the highest quality. Only the most elite circles of society would have commissioned ivory game pieces of this size.
The chess piece has a short and fat cylindrical form, with a rounded cap and button-like top. Its shape guarantees its place among the group of abstract game pieces. This piece is probably the king. The decoration is of particular interest. Stylised cross-shaped, blossom-like ornaments cover its central area at the front and back as well as on the top. They are flanked around the body by stylised trees, and on the top they are surrounded by small crosses and triangles. This decoration is formed from circular drill-holes and dots. The underside of the chess piece has a peculiar feature: three circular holes have been drilled and filled with lead. No single explanation for this has yet been determined. Could it have been to make the piece heavier?
The cross-shaped ornamentation is repeated conspicuously. It is probable that this chess piece was made in Sicily. It has been made according to the traditional manufacture of abstract Arab game pieces, which were customarily employed in southern Italy up until the AH 6th / 12th century.
In Islamic countries the game of chess was played with highly stylised figures such as this figure of a king. Decorated with a pattern of circles this ivory chessman is from southern Italy or Sicily, a region that once was part of the Fatimid empire and was thus deeply influenced by Islamic culture.
Similar chess pieces have been dated to the 11th–12th century because of their circular dot decoration, which was characteristic of some works of art made during this period in southern Italy.
Acquired from an art dealer in 1925.
Similar chess pieces and similarly decorated ivory caskets are attributed to southern Italy or Sicily.
Chess: East and West, Past and Present, Catalogue, New York, 1968.
Contadini, A., “Islamic Ivory Chess Pieces, Draughtsmen and Dice”, in Islamic Art in the Ashmolean Museum, Part One, (ed. J. Allan), Oxford Studies in Islamic Art X, Oxford, 1955, pp.111–54, fig. 54.
Kluge-Pinsker, A., Schachspiel und Trictac: Zeugnisse Mittelalterlicher Spielfreude in Salischer Zeit, Sigmaringen, 1991, pp.50–4, fig. 27.
Kühnel, E., Die Islamischen Elfenbeinskulpturen, VIII–XIII Jh., Berlin, 1971, no. 9, plate V.
Wichmann, S. and Wichmann, H., Schach: Ursprung und Wandlung der Spielfigur in Zwölf Jahrhunderten, Munich, 1960, 282, no. 5, fig. 5.
Jens Kröger "Chess piece" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2017. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;de;Mus01;14;en
Prepared by: Jens KrögerJens Kröger
Jens Kröger is a historian of Islamic art and archaeology. He studied European art history and Ancient Near Eastern archaeology at the Free University of Berlin and obtained his Ph.D. in 1978 on Sasanian and early Islamic stucco (Sasanidischer Stuckdekor, Mainz: von Zabern, 1982). As a curator at the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, he has participated in numerous exhibitions and published on the subject of pre-Islamic and Islamic art, including Nishapur: Glass of the Early Islamic Period (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995), and edited Islamische Kunst in Berliner Sammlungen (Berlin, 2004).
Translation by: Maria Vlotides, Brigitte Finkbeiner
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: GE 19
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Fatimids | Pleasures and Celebrations at Court
Virtual Visit Exhibition Trail
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