IVORY VIKINGS: THE MYSTERY OF THE MOST FAMOUS CHESSMEN IN THE WORLD
AND THE WOMAN WHO MADE THEM
BY NANCY MARIE BROWN
THE 2017 INL READS PROGRAM
I. The story behind Ivory Vikings:
People often ask me how I get my ideas. In this case, one book sparked another. Ivory Vikings introduces Pall Jonsson, who was a bishop in Iceland around the year 1200. I met Bishop Pall while writing Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, my biography of the 13th-century Icelandic writer and chieftain Snorri Sturluson. Snorri is the most influential writer of the Middle Ages: He is responsible for almost everything we know about Norse mythology and may also have established the genre of “saga.”
While gathering illustrations for that book, I stumbled upon the theory that the Lewis chessmen had been made in Iceland at Bishop Pall’s request. This fabulously wealthy bishop and art patron was Snorri’s foster-brother. That meant Snorri Sturluson would have known the ivory carver in Bishop Pall’s employ, a woman named Margret the Adroit.
I included a picture of one of the Lewis chessmen in Song of the Vikings, and referred to the Iceland theory of their origin, but there was no room to develop the idea that medieval Icelanders may also have been exceptional visual artists as well as world-class writers.
That idea nagged at the back of my mind. I wondered why I'd never heard anything like it before. Was the author of this Iceland theory of the Lewis chessmen a crackpot? I did some basic research and learned that the theory was, in fact, a very old one: Frederic Madden of the British Museum, who was the first person to write about the Lewis chessmen, the year after their discovery on the Isle of Lewis in 1831, concluded that they had been made in Iceland in the 12th century.
And yet, when Icelandic civil engineer and chess aficionado Guðmundur Þórarinsson reintroduced the Iceland theory, he was ridiculed. Alexander Woolf, a professor of medieval studies from the University of St Andrews, was particularly dismissive. Responding to a reporter from the New York Times, he said that Iceland was too poor and backward a place to produce such stunning works of art. "A hell of a lot of walrus ivory went into making those chessmen, and Iceland was a bit of a scrappy place full of farmers," he said, adding, "You don't get the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Iowa."
(Woolf has since retracted his statement. The reporter had caught him off guard. Since meeting Guðmundur and visiting Skalholt in Iceland, Woolf has become a supporter of the Iceland theory.)
Woolf’s comment stung me. Having just spent several years researching and writing about the Iceland of that period, I knew he was wrong. Iceland in the late 12th and early 13th century was at the peak of its Golden Age: rich, independent, and in a frenzy of artistic creation.
The man Guðmundur suggested may have commissioned the Lewis chessmen, Bishop Pall of Skalholt, was not only the foster brother of Snorri Sturluson, he was the great-grandson of King Magnus Bare-Legs of Norway (1093-1103), who conquered northern Scotland and the islands and took his nickname from his fondness for wearing kilts. Magnus's line ruled the Norwegian empire without interruption from 1103 to 1264, when northern Scotland and the islands were ceded to the Scottish crown. During that century and a half, King Magnus's Icelandic kinsmen routinely visited Norway, where they were recognized as royalty. Many were knighted; Snorri Sturluson became the first Icelandic baron of Norway; his son-in-law became the first Icelandic earl of Norway.
Bishop Pall himself was a well-educated, well-traveled nobleman--hardly a "scrappy farmer." As a youth he became a retainer of Earl Harald, who ruled the Orkney islands and Caithness in northern Scotland. Later, Pall traveled to England to attend school at a cathedral university, probably Lincoln, where his uncle and predecessor at the see of Skalholt, Bishop Thorlak, had studied. Pall returned to Iceland and became a wealthy chieftain, marrying and having several children. He was famous for the breadth of his book-learning and his excellent Latin, the extravagance of his banquets, the beauty of his singing voice, and his love of fine things.
I was particularly intrigued by Guðmundur’s idea that the creator of the Lewis chessmen could have been a women. The Lewis chessmen, noted one expert on Romanesque art, “are psychologically charged to a degree unusual in twelfth-century sculpture.” They show a “spontaneity and vividness of a worldly kind” missing from most art of the time. Compared to other ivories, added another, “the Lewis men are wholly naturalistic and remarkably accomplished in their execution.” They are “simple but powerful.” Concluded a curator at the British Museum, “The coherent and self-confident style of the Lewis chessmen is virtually without parallel. Indeed there is much uncertainty about the origins of the chessmen, both about their style and their date. This is due to a lack of comparable surviving material. There seem to be no counterparts for the very simply draped, compact and expressive human figures with their strong and forceful faces.”
Why are there no counterparts? Perhaps because we have very little medieval art remaining from Iceland, whose churches—sponsors of most art in the Middle Ages—were wiped clean of their artistic treasures after the Reformation. Everything of value in gold, silver, jewels, or ivory, even wood, was taken to Denmark, whose king then ruled Iceland. Much of it was destroyed or melted down to make new artworks.
Yet the Saga of Bishop Pall, written possibly by his own son, describes a bustling artists’ workshop at the bishop’s see of Skalholt around the year 1200. Pall surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named. Pall beautified his church with stained glass windows and bells in a tall bell tower, which was extravagantly covered with woodcarvings done by Amundi the Smith. Inside were murals painted by an artist and scribe named Atli.
Pall commissioned an extravagant shrine or reliquary from a goldsmith named Thorstein, who was “the most skillful metalworker at the time.” Pall made sure Thorstein lacked nothing, the saga says: He “paid out an immense amount of money in gold and jewels, as well as pure silver. …This work of art was so well made that it exceeded in beauty and in size all other reliquaries then in Iceland, being better than four and a half feet long, while no other shrine in Iceland at the time was longer than eighteen inches.” According to medieval church inventories, there were once over a hundred reliquaries in Iceland.
Thorstein then collaborated with Margret the Adroit, “who at that time was the most skilled carver in all Iceland,” on an altar screen for the church. Thorstein worked the gold and silver, “and Margret carved the walrus ivory extremely well,” the saga says.
Pall also commissioned his own stone sarcophagus—the only one known in Iceland; it was discovered during an archaeological dig in the 1950s. Inside, resting on the skeleton’s shoulder, was a bishop’s crozier. Margret the Adroit would have remained a colorful detail in a little-read saga if the Icelanders had not decided to build a new, modern cathedral at Skalholt—and called first for that archaeological excavation. The existence of Pall’s sarcophagus vouches for the overall truth of the Saga of Bishop Pall. The ivory crozier found inside it calls to mind the one Margret carved out of walrus tusk, the saga says. The crozier described no longer exists, so far as we know: Pall supposedly sent it to Norway. But many experts attribute the crozier discovered in Bishop Pall’s sarcophagus to Margret.
Margret, the saga says, was the best ivory carver in Iceland—which implies there were others. She “made everything that Bishop Pall wanted,” but the saga doesn’t give us a lot of details. The saga only tells us that Bishop Pall sent many gifts to his friends abroad, both gerfalcons and “other treasures. He sent Archbishop Thorir a bishop’s crozier of walrus ivory, carved so skillfully that no one in Iceland had ever seen such artistry before; it was made by Margret.”
Like Bishop Pall’s crozier, the Lewis chessmen are whimsical and bold—and not wholly appropriate. They are the work of an artist who could capture the individuality of a face, of an emotion, of a moment in time; they are the work of an artist with a keen sense of humor and a light heart. That artist could have been Margret the Adroit.
II. Questions to discuss:
1. Why are the Lewis chessmen among the most popular and beloved pieces in the British Museum? Why are they considered among the most important chess pieces in history?
2. What was the role of walrus ivory in the Viking economy? How does the Viking dependence on walrus ivory change the traditional story of the settlement of Iceland?
3. Historians initially dismissed the idea that the Lewis chessmen could have been made in Iceland. Why? Was Iceland on the edge of the world in the Middle Ages, or in the center? Did the ocean connect countries, or divide them?
4. Why did the Icelanders become Christian? What benefits did Christianity bring? Who benefited the most? Why was Bishop Pall the richest man in Iceland in 1200? Could he have placed the bishop on the chess board?
5. What was the position of women in the Viking Age, according to the sagas? How did it change during the Middle Ages? Was Herdis, the wife of Bishop Pall, a typical medieval Icelandic woman? How would you describe her role in modern-day terms?
6. Historians doubted that a woman, Margret the Adroit, could be an artist sophisticated enough to carve the Lewis chessmen. Why? On what do we base our understanding of medieval women? of medieval artists?
7. How do art historians date and place works of art? How much of the process is scientific and how much depends on intuition? What sorts of biases and prejudices get in the way?
8. The Lewis knights ride on horses that look like Icelandic horses. Does that fact help us to date and place the chessmen? Why or why not?
9. Why don’t we know exactly when and where the chessmen were discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the 1800s? What was the role of religion? or greed?
10. Should the Lewis chessmen be “repatriated”? Why or why not? And if so, should they go to the Isle of Lewis or to Iceland?
III. Enhance your discussion with these activities:
1. Go Berserk in Five Easy Lessons. See http://www.thehistoryreader.com/medieval-history/ivory-vikings-go-berserk-in-5-easy-lessons/#more-2945
2. Explore the British Museum’s collection of Lewis Chessmen: Go to http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx and type “Lewis Chessmen” in the Search box.
3. Explore the Scottish National Museum’s collection of Lewis Chessmen: Go to http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/search-our-collections/ and type “Lewis Chessman” (make sure it’s singular “man”) in the Search box.
4. Explore modern and medieval Skalholt here (in English or Icelandic): http://skalholt.is
5. Visit the spot where the chessmen were found here: http://www.bailenacille.co.uk