A Case of Courting: the Erotics of Chess

Ivory Mirror Case with Chess Players, French, (1325-50 CE). Victoria and Albert Museum  No. 803-1891

Ivory Mirror Case with Chess Players, French, (1325-50 CE). Victoria and Albert Museum No. 803-1891

Chess was one of the few times when a man and a woman might find themselves alone in the Medieval period. It was (and is) an intimate game which pits the intellect of one player against another and can evoke strong feelings toward the competitor.  Women were constantly chaperoned at this time, as it was widely believed in Medieval Christian Europe that women had a voracious appetite for sexual encounters and were not to be trusted in the private company of a man. Therefore the few settings where chaperones were not explicitly required were taken advantage of as an opportunity to court the desired person. 

For example, in this ivory mirror case from 1330’s France a male figure on the right moves a chess piece as he grips a pole in his other hand.  The female figure, who is seen seated on the left of the composition, gently touches the man’s hand with the back of her hand in a very intimate gesture. The setting is secluded, with no other figures included in the composition which is filled out with drapery and fabric suggesting a bedchamber or somewhere similarly comfortable (perhaps a tent, as the supportive central pole suggests). The woman’s dress is suggestively draped, creating a distinctly vaginal shape between her (rather widely spread) legs. The man advances his chess piece toward the woman while he also physically puts a foot forward and edges closer to her.

The choice of this imagery is telling when we consider what the object itself was and how it functioned. This was a mirror which most likely lived its early life as part of the toilette of a woman who would have used it frequently to see herself, a privilege in a time when photography was non-existent. Luxury goods such as this were particularly prized for the material; ivory. Ivory was already imbibed with a bodily, sexual connotation through the very nature of the material, which is sleek, hard, and smooth to the touch. Medieval ivory was a material which is both a statement of wealth and frequently of exotic connections due to the flourishing ivory trade, which used the dentine of elephants.  A less foreign, and less commonly employed source of ivory were the tusks of wild boars. This particular composition seems to have been popular for mirror backs as it was frequently copied in other works from the Gothic period.  

There are numerous images of couples playing chess from Medieval artworks; here are a few more noteworthy examples:

Ivory Mirror Back with Couple Playing Chess, German, (c. 1350CE), the Walters Museum, No. 71.268

Ivory Mirror Back with Couple Playing Chess, German, (c. 1350CE), the Walters Museum, No. 71.268

Fesonas and Cassiel the Baudrain Playing Chess. Jacques de Longuyon, Vows of the Peacock; Belgium, Tournai, ca. 1345-50. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS G.24, f. 25v (detail)

Fesonas and Cassiel the Baudrain Playing Chess. Jacques de Longuyon, Vows of the Peacock; Belgium, Tournai, ca. 1345-50. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS G.24, f. 25v (detail)

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