Tactile Vision in the Lewis Chessmen

by Michelle Millar Fisher, Winter 2012

How do experiments in modern psychiatry and neuroaesthetics suggest new paradigms for discourse on centuries-old objects? The current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters, The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, showcases the most famous chess pieces in the world, the Lewis Chessmen. These game pieces possess perhaps the most well known unblinking stares of any inanimate object. Medieval modes of seeing—of sight as a tactile, physical, multi-sensory experience—play out through investigation of these Romanesque objects, in particular the berserk warrior.

Chess pieces are objects enmeshed in literal and metaphorical games of sight, and none more so than the figure of the berserker. The game piece is unique to the Lewis Chessmen and would have stood at each corner of the checked board as the warder or rook. R. Andrew MacDonald contends that “the centuries between 1100 and 1300 in Scotland’s western seaboard teeter on the abyss of obscurity,” somewhat of a contradiction in terms for a discussion that focuses on well-known objects, and on vision (or to be clearer, visuality, the phenomenological term for the multi-sensory medieval conception of sight). However, to date, scholarship on these objects has obscured as much as it reveals through a focus on retelling worn narratives of discovery rather than on particular elements of the hoard. Instead, we might explore their bulging eyes, their anthropomorphic capability of sight, in relation to the game of chess and the figure of the berserker. This is a symbolic or imagined vision played out allegorically in Nordic sagas and strategically on the chessboard, where the operation of the hypothetical player’s vision within the game of chess itself is powerfully positioned as kataskopos, or a figure that spies panoptically from the heavens. In a period where vision was articulated as tactile, and objects such as holy relics became spiritual through touch with both the hand and the eye, the affective power of objects such as the Lewis Chessmen is crystallized in the cerebral operations of strategy and calculated gamesmanship that governed their movement. If, as Johan Huizinga contends, “play creates order, is order” then this investigation offers a window into a specific scopic landscape created through chess play, a visual experience in the medieval period that moved beyond closeted religious communities and pursuits or possessions reserved only for the social elite, to a place where the chessboard served as a geopolitical landscape, a medieval primer in war, nationhood, societal relations and moral etiquette.

Ninety-three twelfth-century Scandinavian Romanesque chess pieces were found in the spring of 1831 by a local man on Lewis, an Outer Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland. It is assumed they were mercantile goods left by a traveler at a time when the Outer Hebrides belonged to Norway (remaining so until the Treaty of Perth in 1266) and sea trade among the upper reaches of Northern Europe was brisk and plenty. The hoard consists of four incomplete chess sets, with the kings, queens, bishops, knights and warders—four of which are berserkers—carved in intricate anthropomorphic forms, and the pawns either blank, or decorated with geometric vegetal patterning. The presence of bishops in the hoard, a replacement for the elephant piece in the earlier and far more abstract Indian and Arabic chess sets, alongside the unique and very pagan berserkers flags a distinctly Northern medieval worldview, itself a type of collective and constructed sight. Their Nordic origin point and eventual resting spot are geographies that were simultaneously connected to many other European cultural centers through mutual trade and Viking raids, and yet were quite fundamentally different (even at this late stage in the long middle ages), situated on the edge of the Empire, late to adopt Christianity, and therefore while not in any way ignorant of developments in the visual culture of the rest of Europe, not in locked step with neighboring and contemporaneous conceptions of visuality either.

As saga legend tells (and recent scholarship has contested) the berserker went naked—save for a bearskin—into battle, teeth biting the top of his shield. His wild gaze was induced by imbibing hallucinogenic plants in a neuropsychological, multi-sensory experience that rendered him impervious to pain, his battle rage dulling other senses in favor of an overwhelming concentration on the power of sight. Berserkers, mentioned in Nordic, Germanic and Celtic oral and textual medieval sources, are recorded most often in Icelandic sagas (which, although written in Iceland, are expansive in their purview of Scandinavian history and legend). As early at 1784, Samuel Lorenzo Ødman of the University of Uppsala had suggested the botanical means—hallucinogenic mushrooms—by which berserkers generated their altered state of mind.In 1956, investigating neurochemical causes of schizophrenia, psychiatrist Howard D. Fabing experimented on a group of convicts in Ohio, administering intravenously differing amounts of the primary compound (bufotenine) derived from the mushrooms in an attempt to mimic beserksgang, the fabled state of going berserk. Subjects reported internal manifestations of the state, “visual hallucinations of vivid red and black blocks…time and space perception were grossly impaired.”There were also exterior signs, as the test subjects were puce in the face for periods of up to twenty minutes, and reported anxiety and a predisposition to move. In each case, the internal hallucinations were accompanied by further physical signs—nystagmus, a rapid and involuntary movement of the eyeball, and mydriasis, a prolonged dilation of the pupil. This experiment in producing both the interior and exterior altered vision of the berserker, connects to the history of berserk vision as a mythic weapon, enacted either through commuting sight of another, or controlling other bodies through the power of the eye. D.J. Beard notes that the father of the berserker, the Norse war-god Ódinn, had “the power to ‘bind men’s minds’…so that they were overcome with terror, and unable to defend themselves in battle.” Ódinn commonly appears as a one-eyed old man, his special powers dispensed through looking in this potently focused manner. The late thirteenth century Gunnlaugs Saga features “a berserker who can blunt weapons by looking at them”and Hilda Davidson writes in her survey, Pagan Scandinavia, of helmet plates depicting chained beasts that symbolized the rituals Ódinn’s berserk warriors performed in honor of their “god with power to loose and bind…the chains laid by Ódinn on his enemies were fetters of the mind.” Historical treatment of the warrior after he is outlawed in the early eleventh century quite conversely suggest a figure that is “unemployed…thoroughly unhappy…[these] former Vikings often developed psychoses that plagued the Middle Ages…[with] violent analogs of depression.” A precursor to Fabing’s modern experiment, medical opinion on madness in the medieval period invokes the specter of the berserker, attributing a “superhuman strength of the mad to a fearlessness resulting from their liberation from temporality [and] the dislocation of their spirit from the processes of rational memory and imagination.” The mental faculties that oversee the Aristotelian functions of “imagination, reason, and memory” engender a strong body instead of a strong mind, suggesting a “play of pain” in which the outsider witnesses the madman’s “reduction to an object of sport” in much the same way the berserker warrior is reduced to a semi-comic chess piece. Irene J. Winter traces points of confluence between the carved eyes of Ancient Near Eastern votive statuary—with eyes so similar to those of the Lewis Chessmen—and references to sight in contemporaneous Mesopotamian texts. Winters’ suggestion that the formal emphasis on the eye codes the act of looking as “affective and powerful” fits within the rhetoric of saga narratives from which the historical figure of the berserker derives. Winter states, “in the sculpture, eyes are emphasized, even disproportionally…to signal not only the intensity of the visual bond between, say, devotee and deity but also the augmented visual experience that results.”

The berserker therefore emerges from a mythology where power and violence are enacted through sight, a refection of the affective power of object and vision played out here in the sovereign gaze of the chess player and his pieces. The bulging eyes and fixed gazes of the chess pieces, destined to be mirrored back when set upon a board as opposing armies, connect the player’s sense of seeing battle to the touch and movement of the pieces. The introspective cognition of the rules and etiquette of chess suggests modalities of vision, quite literally, at play both physically and cerebrally. Now a somewhat tragicomic gesture, each of the anthropomorphic figures along the back row indicate in some way a reflexive point to their eye: each queen rests her hand on her face just below the right eye; the majority of the knights, warders and berserkers either point with their sword directly to one eye, or their shields frame both eyes in an intense stare; the bishop’s staff similarly underlines his penetrating gaze. It is only the king and the faceless pawns that do not motion directly to their engagement with the visual field, although the seated ruler grips a sword in both hands across his knees, his knuckled fists repeating the bulges of his staring eyes.The game was originally based on four opposing Indian armies gathered at each corner of the board and therefore these gazes can be interpreted within a military theatre of operation. Chess is, at heart, a strategic game of war populated by pieces that enact violence on one another in order to outmaneuver an opponent.The emphasis on the eye in the case of these pieces suggests that they are ready to engage in such a pursuit, and their symbolic violence is predicated on the ability to maintain an unblinking and ever-watchful gaze. Faced with anthropomorphic chess pieces the medieval player is primed to identify with their bodily qualities, posed as kataskopos, a seer from above.

The term kataskopos straddles secular and spiritual, interior and exterior, and physical and mental modes of sight, making it a usefully flexible model in the context of medieval Scandinavia (one foot in the pagan past and the other inching toward Christianization in the eleventh century). As an Ancient Greek military term, kataskopos refers to a scout sent in advance to spy on enemy forces and report back. Philosophers of the same period adopted the term to explain the avant-garde (literally advance guard) and militarily disciplined manner of admired contemporary thinkers who possessed “an inner moral certainty” achieved through divine calling “to a life based on absolute moral and physical discipline.” The suggestion of seeing both externally and internally in these instances—surveying soldiers, self-surveillance—correlates with the medieval description of the game of chess as one of strategy and control. Within Christian adoption of the term, kataskopos referred to the apostle who, like the waiting chess piece, can be directed and is “available, [a figure] who digs into situations and waits there at the ready. He or she can be kept on the sidelines as long as God chooses, thrown into battle when God judges the time ripe, given instructions as the battle proceeds.” Mary Carruthers more recently situates kataskopos as “another source of medieval pictura” or interior synthesis of image and text (usually oral sermon) used to aid organization and memory of information available for recall in “the mind’s eye.” In Carruthers’ description, this mode of seeing moves from the ancient katascopic view which is experienced as an exterior process, an “edifying reflection upon human governance, fame, and the rushing if harmonious movement of the spheres,” to the interior medieval “meditative vision” or “third heaven” and the “soul-directing way of monasticism.”

The kataskopos or “view from above,” as philosopher Pierre Hadot terms it, is therefore not a literal ability to fly or the sense of being in the air for chess player, philosopher or monk. It is either an external expansion of sight in the case of the military scout, or an internalized and specific “conception of the power of thought and the divine nature of the soul [that] under extraordinary circumstances [results] as a consequence of the separation of the soul from the body.” Organized monasticism flourished on the western isles at approximately the same time period that the Lewis Chessmen did. Chess was actively played and its rules in large part codified by monks from the time it reached Europe. It is little wonder, therefore, that chess sets would travel to and through Lewis and the Hebrides, and that there are intersections between the operations of spiritual and strategic vision. Indeed, in 1275 the Dominican friar Jacobus de Cessolis wrote a “Book of Chess,” a well-known sermon that mapped the morals of a Christian society directly onto the disciplined civics already at play on the chessboard. It is not only monks who wrote on chess, however. In pagan literature too, in the saga of Vilhjalm sjód, “the tale opens with a number mysterious chess games which lead to the hero’s being sent to seek a giant’s den.” Therefore, the notion of katascopic vision creates a bridge between the eye of the chess player and Christian vision, uniting the Augustinian notion of inward-facing spiritual sight with the military nature and form of the chess game itself, achieved through the “view from above.” Though the model of kataskopos begins as a corporeal exercise of sight, here the body can be left behind in pursuit of interiorized, cerebral attainment derived from mastery of the game, or progressive stages of religious devotion. However, unlike the context of medieval Christian art, where vision is modeled as a path to true Christian belief, a position engendered through the eyes while negating other sensory limits of the human body, in the game of chess, the ideal mind is always attached to the body through the sense of touch as a necessary part of play. Still, there is a correlation between the divine soul and higher mental plane sought by both the monk and the chess player. A position of sight that is internal, spiritual and viewed from above provides a model for the formation of the ideal citizen through gamesmanship, and this is not far removed from the spiritual contemplation of the monk. Both work as “models of impartiality…[a] spiritual exercise of letting go and using reserve, so as to achieve objectivity and critical judgment.”

While the conversion to Christianity in Scandinavia began as early as the eighth century, it took until the beginning of the eleventh century for Iceland to adopt it formally. Missionaries inserted Christian narratives into the language of the Nordic hero sagas in a process of assimilation, and the berserker was presented through both pagan and Christian lenses, becoming a malleable character type. The period between the mid-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries, the time to which the chessmen are dated, is thus an important one in which Christian influence in Scandinavia is cemented, when a network of church authority stemming from Trondheim (Norway) is instituted, and yet the Nordic cultural consciousness remains significantly distinct in certain aspects from western Europe. While Nordic populations had access to Alhazen, Aquinas and Aristotle to shape texts and images, and both Christian and pagan figures molded the politics of the period on the chess board as well as off it, it is significant to note that Nordic modes of sight did not operate between the medieval binary of idolatry or iconoclasm. Consciousness emerged from a blending of exterior sources, including Christianity, but was based in the mythical narratives epitomized by the saga form, and embodied in the memory of the violent gaze of the marauding Viking—a figure closer to the berserker chess piece, and not the bishop.

Today, with a vote on Scottish devolution looming, there have been partisan calls for the chessmen to be returned to the country where they were found, to move from the British Museum in London back to a Scottish collection. Visuality—in terms of the sense of who constructs how these objects are seen today—is now exercised as control of the public presentation of an archaeological asset that promises the draw of thousands of yearly tourists. Such acts of cultural envisioning, no stranger to anyone who enters a museum space, may be described in the language of geopolitics, where an obsession with the formation, rendering and control of forms of knowledge through sight relies on “the rhetorics of vision and visuality” for its operations. The “ferocious fighting men” seem suddenly quite tame in the face of the proprietary attitudes of each political or institutional voice that clamors for their ownership. Neither symbolic nor imagined protest offers hope of rescue from the nationalistic and paternalistic push-and-pull that characterizes such games of sight.