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Checkmate! Medieval People at Play


Games of Love

Gondola

All’s fair in love and … chess? Love is a game—perhaps the game with the highest stakes of all. The idea of “winning” someone’s heart implies competition and strategy. In the medieval era, images of men and women playing games were often metaphors for games of the heart. Depictions of courtship rituals and flirtation often convey a sense of playfulness, both among the people depicted and by the artist who is representing them. From the lovers playing footsies during their backgammon game in the “Games” section of this exhibition to the couple here sneaking some snuggling during a gondola ride, medieval artists play with the viewer, much as lovers play with one another’s heart.

(image: W.477, Gondola, detail of lovers)

Choose an Item to View

Making Sweet Music Together
Making Sweet Music Together Title
Flemish (Liege diocese), ca. 1300 Period
W.37, fols. 20v–21r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
Music and dancing were important social rituals during the medieval era and provided opportunities for men and women to mingle. Here, a man plays a stringed instrument, probably a vielle (an early form of the fiddle), while a woman across the page looks up at him and dances. She smiles, throwing her hip out in a flirtatious way, and the musician smiles back. Their courtship unfolds across the two pages, leaving a poor monk awkwardly in the middle of this secular serenade! About
Making Sweet Music Together
Making Sweet Music Together Title
Flemish (Liege diocese), ca. 1300 Period
W.37, fols. 20v–21r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
Music and dancing were important social rituals during the medieval era and provided opportunities for men and women to mingle. Here, a man plays a stringed instrument, probably a vielle (an early form of the fiddle), while a woman across the page looks up at him and dances. She smiles, throwing her hip out in a flirtatious way, and the musician smiles back. Their courtship unfolds across the two pages, leaving a poor monk awkwardly in the middle of this secular serenade! About
Niclauss Keppell, Book of Italian Costumes
Gondola Ride Title
Italian (Venice), ca. 1588 Period
W.477, fol. 13r, acquired by Henry Walters, ca. 1905 Accession
In this delightful image, a playful artist attached a flap of paper over the cabin of a gondola, concealing the lovers within and inviting the viewer to play “peek-a-boo.” When the flap is lifted, a man’s secret amorous advances toward his lady are revealed, and the woman coyly acknowledges the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze. She seems to toy with the man, however: smiling in response to his attention, yet also leaning away so sharply that she almost falls out of the cabin! About
Mirror Cover with a Couple Playing Chess
Mirror Cover with a Couple Playing Chess Title
German(?), mid-14th century Period
71.268, acquired by Henry Walters, ca. 1925 Accession
As seen in the backgammon image in the “Games” case in this exhibition, images of lovers playing games could stand for the games of courtship. Chess especially could carry this meaning, and here the game symbolizes a man’s attempt to win his beloved’s heart. Scenes of romance often graced the back of mirrors, and it is easy to imagine the lady who owned this one daydreaming about love as she beautified herself for the day. About
Emblem Book
“Love is Blind” Title
Northern Italian, 1570 Period
W.476, fol. 3r, acquired by Henry Walters, ca. 1905 Accession
Emblem books were a popular source of amusement during the late medieval period. They offered mysterious images whose meaning had to be puzzled out through a combination of contemplating the illustration and reading the accompanying text. These emblems offered a moral to be pondered, and often the message was related to love. Here, a blindfolded man precariously teeters at the top of a cliff and, unaware of the danger, takes a step forward. The moral: love is blind. About
Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung, Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose)
Fair Welcoming Gives Amant a Flower Title
French (Paris?), mid-14th century Period
W.143, fols. 19v–20r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
Love can be fickle and complicated. The poem illustrated here concerns the tricky art of courtly love, told through the dream vision of a man named Amant (Lover). In a world populated by allegorical, or symbolic, figures, a rose symbolizes the woman he loves. Fair Welcoming, shown here, represents the part of the woman that is receptive to his love, and she offers a flower in acceptance. However, other aspects of courtship, such as Jealousy and Chastity, conspire to keep the lovers apart. About
Tender Embrace
Tender Embrace Title
W.166, fols. 117v–118r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Period
W.37, fols. 20v–21r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
The trials and games of love can be disheartening, but nothing is more rewarding than finally winning someone’s affection. Here, two lovers have dispensed with the games and tenderly embrace. As they hold each other tightly, flowers and golden leaves seem to spring from their very bodies, celebrating the blossoming of love within them. Although it may seem inappropriate to pair lovers with an image of Christ’s death, they may be intended to remind us of the eternal joy resulting from that event. About