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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
The Realm of Christianity: Europe in the Middle Ages

In AD 395, the Roman Empire split into two halves: the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire), and the Western Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was centered in Constantinople and survived for more than a thousand years. The Western Roman Empire, centered in Rome, suffered from continued invasions by peoples from the north, finally coming to an end in AD 476. Western Europe thereupon fell into a period of rapid political change, marking the rise of the feudal political system of Europe. Later in the fifteenth century, a humanist scholar in Italy pejoratively termed this period as the barbaric and dark "Middle Ages". This viewpoint continued until roughly the late 18th and early 19th century, when Romanticists proposed an alternative view. They believed that the Middle Ages represented a continuation of classical civilization, the cultural center of which focused mainly on Christianity, thereby laying one of the foundation stones of modern Western civilization.

Since Christianity was the principal faith of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, most forms of art were devoted to illustrating subject matter and themes from the Bible, emphasizing the sacred Christian world of the Kingdom of Heaven and eulogizing the lives of martyrs and saints. The era saw the construction of great churches and cathedrals, and many objects and artworks related to the religion were produced, including sculptures, mosaics, wall paintings, and stained glass scenes. Moreover, the close association that developed between secular power and the Church led to the formation of such powerful symbols in society as the king, bishop and knight, as seen on Western chess boards, developing into a strong cultural feature of the Christian world.

Three chess-pieces

Probably made in Norway, about 1150-1200
Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Walrus ivory
King, H10, W5.2, D3.6cm
Bishop, H8.8, W3.9, D2.9cm
Knight, H9.9, W3.1, D5.3cm
1831.11-1.78, 98, 113
Enlargement 1
Enlargement 2
Enlargement 3
Enlargement 4
Three chess-pieces

Three chess-pieces
Three chess-pieces

Three chess-pieces

The king, bishop and knight form part of a collection of 93 chess-pieces, 82 of which are held at the British Museum and 11 of which are kept at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Together they represent a unique survival of the largest group of twelfth century objects made for recreational purposes. They were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland. The circumstances of the find are not clear but the precise find-spot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, dry-stone chamber.

They are made of elaborately carved walrus ivory. The king and bishop are seated on thrones with intricate patterns decorating the backs. Each one is different, drawing on a repertoire of foliate forms (some terminating in animals' heads), geometric interlace, architectural motifs and simple, incised lines. The king is heavily bearded with long hair twisted into braids and sits with his sword across his knees in an attitude which expresses readiness for action. The bishop raises the hook of his crozier to his lips in an act of piety. The bishop was a recent addition to the game of chess at this time, reflecting the increasing importance of the Church in the hierarchy of state. The knight rides a horse which resembles a pony and is equipped for battle. Though the faces of the figurative pieces are not individualised, slight variations in costume, hairstyle and stance contribute considerably to their character and charm.

It is difficult to identify where the chess-pieces were made. Comparable, individual finds of chess-pieces in Sweden and Norway and stylistic similarities with architectural carvings from Trondheim suggest a close connection with Norway. Since component parts of four different chess-sets were found, along with a beautifully carved belt buckle and gaming counters, it is possible that they were all part of a merchant's stock lost in transit between Norway and Ireland.

N Stratford, The Lewis chessmen and the enigma of the hoard, (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)
Châsse Reliquary depicting the Adoration of the Magi

Limoges, France, c1200
Gilt copper-alloy and enamel
H18.5, W18.6, D8.7cm
Bernal Collection 1855
Châsse Reliquary depicting the Adoration of the Magi

The cult of the three kings at Cologne prospered as one of the four most important centres of pilgrimage in Europe. Gifts of relics from the shrine, contained in high quality reliquaries produced in Limoges, encouraged the cult to spread. The reliquaries consisted of richly enamelled copper sheets attached to a gable-ended, wooden core surmounted by a crest set with either rock crystals or enamelled roundels. The narrative of the journey and the adoration of the three kings can be seen on the front. Each side carries the image of an unidentified saint while the back is decorated with squares containing floral motifs. According to legend, the relics had been discovered by the Empress Helena who brought them to Constantinople. They were transported to Milan in the fourth century where they remained until they were installed in Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa between 1162-4.

M-M Gauthier, Émaux du moyen âge occidental, (1972)