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Ornament on top
Profile, proper left
Profile, proper right
In the Arabic game of chess, pieces of this shape typically served as either the king or “vizier”; the king, originally called the shah, served much the same function as in the modern version of the game, while the vizier, originally the firzin, or counselor, evolved into the piece now known as the queen. In the absence of attributes clearly identifying the figure carved in the crook of the L-shaped block, and lacking any other pieces to determine its relative size, the chessman’s identity remains uncertain.
The chess piece serves as throne for a small male figure, seated stiffly within the L-shaped block, staring forwards with his hands upon his knees. Patterned borders line the recessed areas at his feet and behind his throne, also framing images carved on the piece’s sides; a rabbit crouches within the lower front panel, and each of the side panels encloses an elegant deer. A falconer, probably a member of the seated figure’s retinue, appears on the back panel.
This object was carved during the late tenth or early eleventh century in Islamic Cordoba, where trade with Africa ensured ivory to be in abundant supply. Elliptical striations visible on the underside of the piece reveal the unbroken “grain” of the ivory, indicating that it was carved from a single cross section of tusk. Measuring 8.1 cm in height, the chessman is quite large by today’s standards; nevertheless, the wear on its sides attests to its use as an actual gaming piece.
Handbook of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1967), 84, no. 294.
K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. III, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 87-88, no. 33, pls. LX, LXI.
A. Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World: A.D. 200-1400 (Washington, D.C., 1985), fig. 29, p. 30, and passim.
Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," Oct. 24, 1985 - Jan. 26. 1986.
Collection of the Count of Almenas, Madrid.
Collection of Warren Templeton, New York.
Collection of Mrs. (Helene Irwin Crocker) Paul I. Fagan (1887-1966), San Francisco, California.
Gift of Mrs. (Helene Irwin Crocker) Paul I. Fagan, May 24, 1966.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.