Walters' queen is no pawn

Ancient piece blends power and mystery

May 14, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The chess queen's head peers out from her ivory castle as if she has grown too large for a structure that once protected her. She reminds you of something fragile and emergent but determined, like a newborn bird, a turtle, or even (the topic on everyone's mind these days) a cicada. Children think she's riding in a bumper car.

The analogies fit. When the particular queen pictured here was created in 12th-century Spain, the game of chess - like the social hierarchies it models - was in transition. Both real-life queens and those on game boards were on the brink of acquiring formidable power.

The queen on display in the Walters Art Gallery "is a remarkable piece," said Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford University. "It is as if she had been ripening slowly from inside her enclosure, and now peeks out to see if the time has come for her appearance."

As far as Yalom knows, the figurine is the only medieval chess queen in the United States, and she occupies a significant place in Yalom's new book, The Birth of the Chess Queen (HarperCollins, $24.95). Yalom will discuss the piece's importance during a reading and book-signing at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Walters.

For Yalom, chess isn't merely a war game but a mirror of society, and the chess queen is especially mysterious.

In fifth-century India, where the game is thought to have originated, "she" originally was a "he" - a vizier, or counselor.

How, Yalom's book asks, was the vizier gradually transformed into a queen? Today, the opposing queens remain the only specifically female of the 32 pieces on the board. Nearly as puzzling, how did the queens, originally the weakest chess pieces, become the most powerful, with the greatest range of movement?

A careful inspection of the Walters' queen yields clues.

She is made of walrus ivory, a less costly alternative to elephant ivory, which had to be imported from Asia and Africa - a tough trip in the pre-UPS Middle Ages. But all ivory is more expensive than bone, another material used for carving. Unlike bone, ivory has sensuality, a voluptuousness. It is pleasant to imagine holding the palm-sized figurine in your hand, its smoothness, heft and coolness.

"Ivory is incredibly dense and can hold a very fine line," said Griffith Mann, the Walters' assistant curator of medieval art. "It was, and remains, a very precious and luxurious material. This set most likely was owned by someone well-to-do, either a noble or a lay person."

For something so mute, this queen is oddly communicative about her origins: Although the walrus itself hailed from northern Europe, the figurine's close-fitting hood and headband is reminiscent of garments worn by ancient Spanish royalty.

Equally revealing is the combination of abstract elements (the castle) with representational elements (a queen with a face). These reflect life in 12th-century Spain, which was caught between its Islamic heritage and its location in Western Europe. Similarly, Spanish women had as examples both the relative independence of their French and English counterparts and the subservience of Arabic women.

The first record of the chess queen's appearance is in 990 A.D. Yalom suspects that the transformation occurred either in Switzerland, Italy or Germany, all part of the Holy Roman Empire. The latter two nations were ruled by two highly influential queens: first Adelaide and later Theophano.

"The pairing of king and queen on the chessboard symbolized a partnership more significant and more enduring than that of a king and his chief minister," Yalom wrote.

"In India it would have made no sense to have a queen on the board. Chess was resolutely and exclusively a war game enacted between male fighters mounted on animals and marching on foot. ... To this day, the Arabic game is played with a vizier."

Noise and Columbus

The Walters' queen has one more lesson to teach. Look at her size. Imagine the magnificence of a chessboard adorned with 31 other pieces like her.

In modern times, chess is stereotyped as an intellectual, faintly effete activity appealing primarily to male eggheads with soft waists. But in the Middle Ages, everyone played chess - scholars and warriors, aristocrats and peasants, men and women. Well-brought-up young people were expected to display skill at chess, in much the same way that boys were required to master archery and girls, a musical instrument.

Far from being played in the hushed halls of today, medieval chess was a social activity.

"Servants would bring food in and out, men and women flirt, and there would be trumpets blaring," Yalom said.

Policy was even made. In one instance, it might have changed the world.

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