Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Lewis Chessmen and the Icelandic Horse

The Knight is the last piece I place on the imaginary chessboard in Ivory Vikings, my biography of the Lewis chessmen--though it could have been the first.

When the Lewis chessmen came to the Cloisters Museum in New York for the "Game of Kings" exhibition in 2011, curator Barbara Drake Boehm wrote a blog post comparing the knights' horses to Icelandic horses. (Read it here.)

That blog post was one of the things that initially caught my interest and made me want to learn about the Lewis chessmen. I own Icelandic horses and have written a book about them, A Good Horse Has No Color. I'm also active in the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress (, through which I know the people Barbara spoke to and who took the photos of Icelandic horses that she used on her blog.

"Long forelocks falling over the eyes, groomed manes, tails that reach to the ground, and a short, stocky frame distinguish the horses ridden by the Knights of the Lewis Chessmen," Barbara wrote. "They seem to resemble today's Icelandic horses. I spoke to Heleen Heyning, a breeder of Icelandic horses at West Winds Farm in upstate New York. She immediately saw the resemblance between the Lewis horses and her own. She noted that Icelandic horses were known across Scandinavia in the Viking era and are thought to have been introduced to Iceland about the year [870]. For the last thousand years--that is, since before the Lewis Chessmen were carved--there has been no crossbreeding of Icelandic horses. Therefore, the resemblance we see is not accidental."

Barbara and Heleen are right. The chessmen's horses do resemble Icelandics. Here is a photo of my husband on one of our own Icelandic horses, looking very much like a Lewis knight.

But the similarity to Icelandic horses is not proof that the chessmen were carved in Iceland. Most horses in Northern Europe at that time were just as small--as we can see by comparing a Lewis knight with other 11th and 12th century images of people on horseback. In each case, the rider's feet dangle down, way down, below the horse's belly.

This horse from the Hunterian Psalter, an English manuscript dated before 1170 and now in the collection of Glasgow University, seems to me to be a perfect match for a Lewis knight's horse. (For more images from this beautiful manuscript, see

But horses of similar size can be found in art from Norway (the Baldisholl Tapestry), France (the Bayeux Tapestry), Iceland (the Valthjolfsstadur Door), and many other places.

That the chessmen's mounts look like "stocky, docile ponies," according to other experts, is proof that their carver had a sense of humor. But this, too, is a misunderstanding, I think. "Stocky" and "docile" are not genetically linked--as anyone knows who's ridden an Icelandic horse. These are strong, powerful animals, capable of carrying a large man all day over difficult terrain. (If you would like to try it, join me next summer on a tour in Iceland: See for the riding tours and riding-optional tours I lead.)

Plus, the chessmen's stockiness is functional. A chess knight must be easy to grasp, well-weighted and stable, with few protruberances to snap off when the piece is dropped, thrown, or the board overturned in a pique (which happens with some frequency in medieval narratives). Artistic license also applies: If the horses' bodies are disproportionately small compared to their heads, so too are the tiny feet of the knights. A chess-carver working in walrus ivory, as well, must make a rectangular form (the horse) from an oval-shaped material (the section of tusk) to fit a square space (on the chessboard).

The carver's sense of humor does peek through, however, in the horses' expressions. There's a touch of whimsy to them, as they peer from beneath their long, shaggy forelocks. Some even seem to be looking askance, as if to say, What are we in for now? Their manes, on the other hand, are neatly roached or braided. Their tack is quite exact. The arch in their necks and lack of tension on their reins show they are well trained; the prick of their ears show they are alert. This artist was well-acquainted with horses and their moods.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or hear me speak at these events:

October 13, 2015: Fletcher Memorial Library, Ludlow, VT at 7:00 p.m. Sponsored by The Book Nook. See

October 15, 2015: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m. See

October 17, 2015: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT at noon. See

1 comment:

  1. Some of the horses appear to be similar to the Icelandic horses of today, but some of them also look a lot like Fjordhorses which were also common at that time. The heavier build and head and neck set, along with the traditionally cut mane lead me to think that. Does anyone know definitively what the Icelandics genetic make up is? Can there ancestral lineage be understood through genetic testing? The carver would have likely known of the Fjordhorse even if said carver were located in Iceland. Just a thought.