Saturday, January 19, 2013

Isle of Man Stamps – The Chronicles of Man & The Lewis Chessmen




In conjunction with an exhibition at the Manx Museum in Douglas, Isle of Man Stamps has issued a set of six stamps depicting each of the celebrated Lewis Chessmen currently on show alongside the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles on extended loan from the British Library. 

The intricately carved Lewis Chessmen are thought to be some of the most familiar and iconic archaeological artefacts in the world, falling into an era when a powerful sea kingdom, comprising the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Skye, Argyll and the Irish Sea was ruled from the Isle of Man. The Kings of Man and the Isles controlled a vital sea route deemed important for trading items such as rare chess pieces, silver coins and precious symbols of religious power.

It was during this period that the famous Lewis Chessmen were made by craftsmen carving expensive pieces of walrus tusk and an occasional tooth from a sperm whale. Valued around the world, they were discovered by accident on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in the nineteenth century. Thought to have been made about 1200AD in the city of Trondheim in Norway, some of the figures were originally stained red, suggesting that the mediaeval version of chess adopted a different colour system to its contemporary cousin.

The rediscovered Lewis Chessmen provide an extraordinary glimpse into the past, giving us tantalising hints about life at this time and providing clues as to style of dress, art and possible wealth of individuals. Quality items such as these would be costly additions in any household.

The six figures on loan from the British Museum illustrate each part of the chess set and are significant by the individuality of expression, style or apparel. The king wears a serious, almost comical, expression whilst sitting majestically on his throne but don’t underestimate the grip he has upon the hilt of his sword. His queen, however, is a more curious character, her long hair braided and covered with a veil underneath her crown, her head in her hands wearing an expression suggesting discontent, or possibly contemplation. However, the bishop serves as perhaps the most important figure within the set as he became a key element in dating the Lewis Chessmen. Visibly giving a sign of blessing, the bishop wears his mitre with the peak pulled to the front which was adopted after 1150AD, a crucial marker in determining their age. The knight is portrayed astride an exaggerated Scandinavian horse of this era and the warder carries all the hallmarks of the fierce warrior known as a berserker, but the pawn sits eloquently in its simplicity.

Each stamp depicts a single figurine with text from the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles in the background reflecting some of the intricate work from the rear of each statue.

Valerie Caine
© January 2013

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