Chess was a wildly popular pastime among the nobility, and was also an important element in medieval romantic literature. Who do you think is winning this game?
During the 1300s, elephant ivory was valued by courtly patrons as the most exquisite material for indicating the human form. At this time Paris was the center of production for luxury ivories like the example seen here. They were much sought after by members of the court and aristocracy as emblems of wealth and status and signifiers of fashion and taste. This ivory, once forming a mirror back, depicts a man and woman engaged in a game of chess, a popular game at the time representing both love and war in medieval iconography. Various suggestions have been proposed for the identity of the couple—Tristan and Iseult or Lancelot and Guinevere—without certainty. Mirror backs survive in large numbers from the 1300s and typically depict amorous encounters or chivalrous behavior. They were produced for a secular clientele steeped in romantic literature and with an appetite for luxury objects.
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