Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Chess Set

Object Name:
Chess set
12th century
Attributed to Iran, Nishapur
Stonepaste; molded and glazed
Largest piece (King) H. 2 in. 5.5 cm Diam. 2 1/8 in. (4.4 cm) Small piece (pawn) H. 3.3 cm. Diam. 2.9 cm
Gaming pieces
Credit Line:
Pfeiffer Fund, 1971
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 453
This nearly complete chess set is one of the earliest extant examples in the world. The pieces are abstract forms: the shah (king) is represented as a throne; the vizier (the equivalent of the queen) is a smaller throne; the elephant (bishop) has two tusklike protrusions; the horse (knight) has a triangular knob representing its head; the chariot (rook) is rectangular with a wedge at the top; and the pawns are faceted hemispheres with knobs.
Literary tradition attributes the origin of chess to northern India.[1] By the late Sasanian period the game had been introduced into Iran. One of the tales preserved in the Persian national epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings), explains the invention of chess as a way of demonstrating to a grieving queen the battle in which one of her sons died opposing his brother. Another recounts how the game was introduced to Iran: the ruler of India sent a set of chess pieces with an envoy as a challenge, declaring that his continued payment of tribute depended on the ability of the Iranian king to decode the point of the game.[2] While these legends underscore the courtly roots of chess, other sources demonstrate that the game gained popularity at all levels of society in the medieval Islamic world.[3]

This is one of the earliest extant chess sets, and it is nearly complete.[4] The pieces are molded of stonepaste and finished by hand. Seventeen of them are coated with the turquoise glaze frequently employed in monochrome-glazed ceramics of Seljuq Iran; the other fifteen pieces are glazed with manganese.[5] The individual pieces are highly abstracted versions of the figures to which they refer.[6] The shah (king) is represented as a large throne and the firzan or vizier (in European chess, the queen) as a smaller throne. The fil (elephant, which became the bishop) has a circular base and a flattened top from which two protrusions recall the animal’s tusks. The faras (horse, the knight) has a circular base with a triangular knob representing the head. The rukh (chariot, the equivalent of the rook or castle) has a rectangular base with an inverted wedge at the top. The pawns are faceted domical forms surmounted by small knobs. The near-abstraction of these forms was not a recent development, as it is evident in the earliest dated chess pieces firmly attributed to the Islamic world, a group of similarly shaped ivory examples excavated at Nishapur, dating as early as the ninth century.[7]

Ellen Kenney in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


1. Rosenthal, F[ranz]. "Shatrandj." In EI2 1960–2009, vol. 9 (1997), p. 366.

2. Gunter, Ann C. "Chess and Its Visual Culture in West, South, and Southeast Asia." pp. 139–48 in Asia Sciety 2004. She illustrates two fourteenth-century paintings from Iran in the Metropolitan Museum collection (acc. nos. 34.24.1, 1974.290.39) in which the transmission episode is depicted, and summarizes other creation stories for the game of chess as well.

3. On the popularity of chess, see Cassavoy, Kenneth. "The Gaming Pieces." In Serçe Limani: An Eleventh-Century Shipwreck, vol. 1, The Ship and Its Anchorage, Crew, and Passengers, by George F. Bass et al., (reference not given in the catalogue) pp. 328–43. College Station, Tex., 2004; on the permissibility of the game, see Rosenthal, F[ranz]. "Shatrandj." In EI2 1960–2009, vol. 9 (1997), pp. 366–68, pp. 37–40. For a more cross-cultural perspective, see Wilkinson, Charles K. "A Thirteenth-Century Morality." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 2, no. 1 (Summer 1943), pp. 47–55..

4. Thermoluminescence testing carried out by the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford University on two pieces of this set determined that they were manufactured some time between ca. 1080 and ca. 1530 (curatorial files, Metropolitan Museum, Department of Islamic Art). See also Asia Society 2004, pp. 150–51.

5. On the use of manganese in glaze, see Watson 2004, p. 305.

6. They correlate to the type that Anna Contadini terms "Style A," most examples of which date to the eleventh to thirteenth centuries (Contadini, Anna. "Islamic Ivory Chess Pieces, Draughtsmen and Dice." In Islamic Art in the Ashmolean Museum, Part 1, edited by James [W.] Allen, pp. 111–54. Oxford Studies in Islamic At, 10. Oxford, 1995, p. 121).

7. The previously asserted explanation that the abstraction of the forms had to do with Islamic religious prohibitions of figuration has been largely set aside (Contadini 1995, [reference in footnote 6] p. 143 n. 4; ; however, see Cassavoy 2004, [reference in footnote 3] p. 331).
[ Saeed Motamed, Frankfurt, until 1971; sold to MMA]
Mexico City. Colegio de San Ildefonso. "Arte islamico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York," September 30, 1994–January 8, 1995, no. 46.

New York. Asia Society. "Asian Games: The Art of Contest," October 14, 2004–January 18, 2005, no. 12:16.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rumi," October 15, 2007–March 5, 2008, no catalogue.

Swietochowski, Marie, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Notable Acquisitions 1965–1975 (1975). p. 145, ill. (b/w).

Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn, Suzanne G. Valenstein, and Julia Meech-Pekarik. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Oriental Ceramics: The World's Great Collections. vol. 12. Tokyo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977. ill. pl. 258.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daniel S. Walker, Arturo Ponce Guadián, Sussan Babaie, Stefano Carboni, Aimee Froom, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Tomoko Masuya, Annie Christine Daskalakis-Matthews, Abdallah Kahil, and Rochelle Kessler. "Colegio de San Ildefonso, Septiembre de 1994-Enero de 1995." In Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994. no. 46, pp. 136-137, ill. p. 137 (b/w).

Carboni, Stefano. "Chessmen in the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Scacchi e Scienze Applicate suppl. no. 7, fasc. 15 (1996). ill. p. 4 (b/w).

Mackenzie, Colin, and Irving Finkel, ed. Asian Games The Art of Contest. New York: Asia Society, 2004. no. 12:16, p. 151, ill. (color).

Watson, Oliver. "Kuweit National Museum - The Al-Sabah Collection." In Ceramics from Islamic Lands. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 70, pp. 112-113, ill. p. 112 (color).

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