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"Saint Louis" chessboard

Decorative Arts
Middle Ages

Author(s):
Barbier Muriel

The "St Louis" chess comes from the Crown collection, but the tradition attributing it to Louis IX of France is certainly mistaken. This set, made of rock crystal and smoked quartz, was in fact created in the late fifteenth century in Germany (the board) and France (the pieces). Extensively altered over the centuries, it nevertheless remains a fine example of the artistic inventiveness of the fifteenth century and of the magnificence of the French Crown collection.

A chess set of crystal, quartz, and silver

The board is composed of thirty-two squares of rock crystal alternating with thirty-two squares of smoked quartz, all cased in silver. Each square of rock crystal is backed with a silver foil bearing a silver flower with red enamel petals and green enamel leaves. Similarly, each square of quartz is backed with a black foil adorned with a gilt silver flower with leaves of silver. These flowers are thus visible through the opaque squares. Half of the pieces, which are not all original, are carved from rock crystal (the white pieces), and the other half (the black pieces) from smoked quartz. Each piece is six-sided, carved from a single block and mounted in gilt silver.

A chess set within a chess set

Arranged around the periphery of the board's sixty-four squares are eight small compartments covered with rock crystal lids. Inside are little boxwood figurines, both civilian and military, seated, standing or on horseback. Painted red or blue, they seem to echo the chessmen. On two of the sides, the tiny figures occupy the squares of a reduced chessboard of white and black metal. Each of these sixteen-square boards is framed by two bouquets of silver flowers on a ground of imitation greenery, which also appears inside two other compartments containing soldier figurines represented in a forest. The military figures are modeled on German soldiers of the late fifteenth century, suggesting that the board was made in southern Germany.

The chess set: modifications and history

In 1791 the sides of the board were still embellished with gilt copper on a ground of blue enamel. Now the sides are plated with a stamped silver frieze of foliage added in the nineteenth century. The corners rest on the heads of chubby winged cherubs in gilt bronze dating from the seventeenth century. Added in the eighteenth century, these may be of Italian workmanship. Royal inventories often listed chess sets made of semi-precious stones. The presence of the little boxwood figures links this set with others listed in inventories as belonging to the Palais du Louvre. This set was listed in the inventory of the collections of Gabrielle d'Estrées (1573-99), and later in the gem collection of Louis XIV under number 31. As one piece was lost, Louis XVIII gave the set to his first valet de chambre, Thierry de Ville-d'Avray.

Technical description

  • "Saint Louis" chessboard

    Late 15th century and 17th century

  • Rock crystal, cedar, gilded silver, gilded bronze

    H. 6.50 cm; W. 43 cm

  • Former Crown collection; loaned by the Musée de Cluny

    Cl 642

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Anne de Bretagne
    Room 6

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