Who carved them? Where? In my book Ivory Vikings, I evaluate the theory that they were made for Bishop Pall of Skalholt, Iceland in about the year 1200 by a woman artist named Margret the Adroit.
According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, the bishop was in the habit of sending expensive gifts to his friends in Norway, Denmark, Greenland, and the Orkney Islands. He surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named in his saga: Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, Thorstein the Shrine-Smith, and Margret the Adroit, who was the best ivory carver in Iceland.
Until recently, scholars thought the Lewis chessmen must have been carved in a town like Trondheim, Norway. Iceland was too poor and backwards, they thought, to produce such sophisticated works of art.
They didn't know about Bishop Pall and his artists.
The Saga of Bishop Pall, however, is as factual as any medieval chronicle. It falls into the category of Contemporary Sagas. These sagas were composed within a generation of the actions they describe. Their authors were often eyewitnesses to the events.
The Saga of Bishop Pall is also backed up by archaeology. According to the saga, when Pall died in 1211, he was buried in a stone sarcophagus. This sarcophagus is the only one mentioned in Icelandic records. The country has no tradition of stone sculpture, and even Icelanders did not believe the saga account of Bishop Pall's sarcophagus--until they found it.
|Bishop Pall's sarcophagus. From fornleifur.blog.is|
When it was opened, the researchers found a bishop's crozier carved from walrus ivory resting on the shoulder of the skeleton.
|Bishop Pall. From thjodminjasafn.is|
|Bishop Pall's crozier. |
Bishop Pall's crozier is now on display in the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. We don't know if Margret made it, but if the one she carved was comparable, she was clearly a talented artist. And the description of Pall in his saga proves that this lover of fine things has the means, the motivation, and the taste to commission the Lewis chessmen.
(This story was first published on the "Stuck in Iceland" blog, http://stuckiniceland.com/south/ivory-vikings/.)
Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website, http://nancymariebrown.com, or check out these reviews:
"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/02/briefly-noted-the-blue-guitar (scroll down)
"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29): http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21662487-bones-contention
"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29): http://www.startribune.com/review-ivory-vikings-by-nancy-marie-brown-the-mystery-of-the-lewis-chessmen/323230441/