January 20, 2017

The Rock Crystal Chess Set: A Study In Timely Warfare

By Tara Meyer

Chess is a game of patience and strategy. It is a battle of silent wits where slow and steady often wins the race. The Rock Crystal Chess Set and Board, which is on display in the current exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame, titled Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Natural Splendors From the Chess Collection of Dr. George and Vivian Dean, is an exemplary model of a late medieval chess set that embodies the execution of timely warfare.

Crafted in Rhineland, Germany, around 1525, the Rock Crystal Chess Set and Board is the oldest chess set in the exhibition. Its pieces are carved from clear and smoky quartz, with each having hand-wrought gold and silver caps respective of their station and location on the board. These lavish materials are repeated throughout the board as well, which is supported by four gilded and advancing tortoises. These cheeky little tortoises are not only symbolic of the slowness of the game of chess, but also, perhaps even more importantly, are representative of the patience and strategy significant in medieval warfare, qualities that are also echoed throughout the board’s pieces.

Consequently, the craftsmanship and effort necessary to create this stunning chess set and board are reminiscent of the practice of the game, making it a highly symbolic and workable form of art. The beautifully decorated chess pieces inspire their viewer to imagine a distant era of medieval kings and queens, while the adorned caps of the bishops, rooks, and pawns bestow imagery evocative of the dire conflict of the Middle Ages.

To today’s audience, the Rock Crystal Chess Set and Board remains a symbolic monument to the chess of past centuries. The richness of materials, ingenuity of design, and potent symbolism make this set a force to be reckoned with. Don’t be a pawn—come and see this magnificently regal chess set while you still can!

Dean Collection Images © Dean Collection 2010. Richard Beenen Photography.