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Picture Perfect Pawns: The Aesthetic History of Chess

For centuries, chess has tested the skills and puzzled the minds of strategic thinkers from around the world. While its origins extend as far back as the 7th century, 20th-century chess became a robust and renowned staple of modern art and culture. Learn more.

Chess and Art

The Battle of Issus Chess Set. 20th Century. M.S. Rau

The Battle of Issus Chess Set. 20th Century. M.S. Rau

It is generally believed that the earliest form of chess, an ancient Indian game known as Chaturanga, originated in Northern India before the 7th century. This version was enjoyed by four players on a 64-square board, and each piece had an individual advantage that a team could use against its opponents.

It was later described as “Shatranj” in Persia during the Sasanian Empire of the 7th and 8th centuries. This two-person adaptation included chess pieces reflective of cultural characters and themes, often incorporating carved wooden or stone statuettes of a king, queen, elephant, horse, chariot and foot soldier.

Despite the use of more primitive ancient technology, the artisans who crafted Shantranj sets were not limited to using rudimentary materials. In a tale of captivating chess folklore, it is said that an Indian king gifted the Sassanid king, Khosrau I, a Shatranj set made of exquisite emeralds and rubies, highlighting how chess was thought of not only as a game but also as a luxury commodity.

The History of Chess Pieces

The Isle of Lewis chess set, found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides Islands of Scotland, includes some of the world’s most famous and artistically detailed pieces. Carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth, these pieces demonstrate the artistry of Norse and Celtic tradition by depicting various characters like kings, queens, bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns.

While the kings and queens are distinguishable by their thrones, the knights are portrayed proudly on horseback, and the rooks are shown as crenelated towers. The Isle of Lewis chess set is perhaps the first example of modern chess and serves as one of the earliest versions of what is known popularly today as the Howard Staunton chess set.

Designed by architect Nathaniel Cook and publicized in 1849, the Staunton pattern became standardized — pieces were at last recognizable in any environment and culture, allowing the game to be accessed more easily by players from differing social strata around the world. Cook was captivated by Victorian-era architecture and its integration of intricate classical motifs, modeling the pawns from powerful neoclassical columns and the knights from the Head of a Horse of Selene on the east pediment of the Parthenon.

The set was later named for Howard Staunton, a renowned chess player and aficionado who strongly endorsed the standardization of the game. A mid-19th-century ad in Illustrated London News enlightened the public on the value of Staunton chess pieces, saying:

William IV-Period Specimen Chess Table | M.S. Rau

William IV-Period Specimen Chess Table | M.S. Rau

Today, modern chess is both a popular pastime and a way for game designers and artists to demonstrate their skills in producing chess sets as extraordinary works of art. Likewise, the game itself is depicted in many sophisticated contemporary and antique paintings. Hermès, the iconic designer brand, has expanded into the world of chess with its unique boards. With a sleek modern twist on the Staunton style, Hermès chess sets elegantly blend tradition and glamour by bringing both simplicity and luxury to the game.

Samarcande II Chess Set | Hermès

Samarcande II Chess Set | Hermès

Other luxury chess sets are crafted of rare gems, elegant stones and precious metals, all of which add to the game a sense of grandeur and novelty. Chessboard artisans have even combined aesthetic charm with historical storytelling. The Battle of Issue Chess Set depicts in romantic grandiosity an ancient battle between King Darius of Persia and Alexander the Great of Macedon, highlighting its historical importance in an artistic and captivating way. Likewise, in paintings made as early as the 18th century, chess is depicted simultaneously as a leisurely pastime and intellectual training for the educated class.

The Chess Game By Georges Croegaert
The Chess Game by Georges Croegaert. 20th Century. M.S. Rau
Imbued with a rich history and deep artistic roots, the game of chess and its board designs reflect the ongoing creativity of global society. From India to Europe and to the United States — from Shatranj to the Staunton pattern to styles with contemporary flair — chess has proven to be an enduring cultural development with dazzling artistic innovation. As game designers and artists look towards the future of the game, one thing is certain: chess and art will continue to flourish elegantly together.



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