Although the "Trondheim theory" of the origins of the Lewis chessmen is often presented as fact, art historians have been debating whether they were made in Iceland or Norway or Scotland or England or somewhere else ever since the chessmen were first studied at the British Museum in 1832. As one expert concluded in 1909, "Artistic influences were constantly interchanged, and common features of ornament are found on both shores of the North Sea, with the result that it is often difficult to say to which side a given object belongs."
When Icelandic art historian Bera Nordal studied the motifs on the Lewis chessmen in 1992, she compared them to stone carvings and wooden stave churches in Norway, to other walrus-ivory objects in the British Museum and the Danish National Museum, and to a little-known collection of Romanesque wood carvings in the National Museum of Iceland. She reached "no conclusive answers as to whether the Lewis chessmen originated in Norway or Iceland" or somewhere else.
Nordal's work on the Icelandic wood carvings is missing from most discussions of the Lewis chessmen. She wrote in Icelandic and published in an obscure journal.
Rifling old files for information on Saint Olav's church, which was demolished in 1702, archaeologist Ian Reed stumbled upon the sketches and a few details from the finder's report. He shared this information with McLees and Ekroll. To them the sculpture was no Madonna but a Lewis chess queen. As sketched, the figure wears a veil but no crown. Only her head and one arm remained to be drawn, but the right hand was all that the researchers needed: She holds her hand to her cheek.
Touring modern-day Trondheim, especially with the authors of this report--as I did to research Ivory Vikings--it's not hard to find motifs like those on the Lewis thrones in Nidaros Cathedral, on stones displayed in the Bishop's Palace Museum, on the wall of a small church down a side street, and in the ruins of Saint Olav's Church (preserved inside the new library).
An ivory chess piece, after all, would fit in an artist's pocket. The entire Lewis hoard could easily be transported by a carver coming from, say, Lund (then in Denmark, now in Sweden)--where another broken piece of a Lewis chessman, this time the front feet of a knight's horse, was found in the 1980s.
I won't run through all the holes I poked in the Trondheim theory of the origin of the Lewis chessmen. You can read that for yourself (Chapter 4 of Ivory Vikings). It was, I think, the hardest part of the book to write--demolishing the theory of two clever and competent researchers whom I liked very much and who had been very generous with their time and expertise. I rewrote that section several times, trying to be fair. It's a good theory, I wanted to stress. It's just not the only one. And it's definitely not fact.
So I felt like I had aced an exam when I received, a few days ago, a letter from Chris McLees in Trondheim thanking me for sending him a copy of Ivory Vikings. "It was fun to see the story of the discovery of our Trondheim chess queen woven into the narrative as you did," he wrote. He hadn't finished the book, but "What I have read has greatly impressed me," he said.
"I reserve final judgment on your theory"--that the Lewis chessmen were made in Iceland, he added, "but I heartily agree that it is compelling. I'll get back to you on that after a closer reading."
I couldn't have asked for more.
http://nancymariebrown.com, or check out these reviews:
"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/02/briefly-noted-the-blue-guitar (scroll down)
"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29): http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21662487-bones-contention
"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29): http://www.startribune.com/review-ivory-vikings-by-nancy-marie-brown-the-mystery-of-the-lewis-chessmen/323230441/