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Work Mirror case

Department of Decorative Arts: Middle Ages

Mirror valve: game of chess

© 1993 RMN / Daniel Arnaudet

Decorative Arts
Middle Ages

Bardox Marie-Cécile

Gothic ivory carvers produced not only many religious works but also secular pieces like this mirror case. Such ivory plaques were carved with scenes of courtly life or illustrations of fashionable romances. A passage from the romance of Tristan and Yseult is the likely inspiration for the game of chess shown here. The very delicate modeling of the relief and the cheerful elegance of the characters are characteristic of the art of the court of Philip IV (the Fair).

An episode from courtly literature

The illustration on the ivory mirror case, flanked by four chimerical animals, may be an episode from the romance of Tristan and Yseult, when, before drinking the potion that will make them fall in love, the protagonists play chess on the boat that is taking them to King Mark; or it may show a passage in the romance of Huon de Bordeaux, who wagers his life to win the favors of his beautiful opponent.

An allegory of courtly love

Gothic mirror cases depicting two lovers typically show them conversing or hunting. The motif of playing chess belongs to this mode: other mirror cases that show it include one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. It also appears on a casket carved with courtly scenes belonging to the church of St. Ursula in Cologne. Chess, as an intellectually demanding game of strategy, symbolizes courtly love governed by precise rules. Opposed to chess in this respect is the game of dice, symbolic of brutish debauchery. The crown held behind the woman by a servant, an allusion to the success that may crown the hero's hopes, suggests the future union of the two lovers.

Art at the court of Philip IV (the Fair)

The delicate relief and the rounded volumes recall the illuminations of Maître Honoré and also the sculptures done around 1300 for Philip IV in the collegiate church of Poissy. The refinement of this ivory corresponds to the general artistic tendency of the French court at that time.


Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, L'art au temps des rois maudits. Philippe le Bel et ses fils 1285-1328, Catalogue d'exposition, Paris, Galeries du Grand Palais, n 98, 1998.
Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, "Valve de miroir : Le jeu d'échecs...", in L'objet d'art de la saison, n 3, septembre 1997-février 1998.
Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, Miroirs. Jeux et reflets depuis l'Antiquité, Catalogue d'exposition, musée départemental des Antiquités, Rouen, 2000-2001, p. 122.
Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, Les ivoires médiévaux, Catalogue des collections du département des Objets d'art, Paris, editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, n 127, 2003 (à paraître).

Technical description

  • Paris (c. 1300)

    Mirror valve: game of chess

  • Ivory

    Diam. 11.50 cm; D. 0.90 cm

  • Gift of A.-Ch. Sauvageot, 1856 , 1856

    OA 117

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Jeanne d'Evreux
    Room 3
    Display case 18

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