Wednesday 19 November 2014

A medieval gamebox re-visited

When you enter the Kunstkammer in the Kunst Historisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, you immediately stumble upon a beautifully made medieval box for board games. This gamesbox did feature in a previous blog, as well as the accompanying chess pieces that stood model for my courier chess pieces. This gamesbox, however, proved to be far more interesting than anticipated.

The gamesbox dates from the first half of the fourteenth century and contains a board for chess and backgammon. The boards have been beautifully decorated with certosina style inlays in jasper, bone, agate and chalcedony. Certosina is a technique from the Italian renaissance, similar to intarsia, that uses small pieces of other materials to create geometric patterns on wood. The term comes from Certosa Church in Pavia, Italy, where it was used in ornamenting an altarpiece. Most of the certosina patterns can be seen on the edges of the boards and the 'points' and centre of the backgammon board.

 The edges and the outside of the 'points' are heavily decorated in certosina style.

A large rose in jasper ornaments the centre of each half of the backgammon board. 
Around it are several other inlaid flowers and geometric patterns.

The most outer squares of the chess board have a certosina geometric pattern decoration, regardless of the fact that the square should be 'white' or 'red' chequered. The white (bone) chequered squares have a small certosina wheel in the centre, the red jasper squares are plain. However 16 of the 'red' squares are different. Here, painted miniatures are hidden behind a rock crystal window.

16 of the 'red' squares of the chess board contain painted miniatures.

Some of the miniatures behind the crystal windows.

The 20 game pieces on display were a surprise for me. I had checked the online database of the museum and only found the 14th century chalcedony and red jasper chess pieces and assumed that these were the 20 game pieces. Actually, the twenty game pieces were 10 chalcedony and 10 red jasper tablemen for backgammon. Actually this is 10 (5 each) pieces short of a complete medieval backgammon set (assuming the rules of quinze tablas of Alphonso X the Wise). To play draughts, only 4 pieces are missing (assuming European layout of the game; for Arabic medieval draughts 12 extra pieces are necessary). The tablemen have a similar size as 'modern' game pieces.

The 'plain' chalcedony and red jasper game pieces for backgammon.

The chess pieces, which are identically made from chalcedony and red jasper, were unfortunately not on display.  I was a bit disappointed in this, as it really would have given a complete image of the complete games box.

The chess set for the games box.

The side of the games box.

Another beautiful, unrelated game piece in the Kunstkammer made from walrus tusk. 
An image of the flight of Alexander the Great is carved in it. Rhineland, around 1200.

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