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Checkmate! Medieval People at Play

Manuscript Exhibition Examines Aspects of Play in Medieval Society

Media Contact

Amy Mannarino
410-547-9000, ext. 277


Checkmate! Medieval People at Play


July 17–October 10, 2010


The Walters Art Museum
600 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201


We are all familiar with praying monks, but playing monks? A Book of Hours from Flanders finds them deep in a game of “Blind Man’s Bluff,” while on the opposite page peasant boys enjoy a rigorous game of hockey. Such delightful images of play are unexpectedly ubiquitous in medieval manuscripts. Neither stodgy nor perpetually pious, medieval people found time for amusement in the margins of their lives and their manuscripts. Surprisingly, playful images are most often found in religious books, where artists tended to populate the margins with humorous, even outrageous or irreverent imagery. The medieval mind loved juxtaposing the profound and the frivolous. Sometimes the artist’s playfulness was meant for the most serious ends, intended to help one remember a prayer or the Gospels. But often the artists were simply having fun, creating delightfully lighthearted images for the entertainment of the reader. 

This exhibition looks at many different aspects of medieval play, including board games, sports, free play, visual ciphers and even games of love. Drawn entirely from the Walters’ own stellar collection, the exhibition features 26 manuscripts, original medieval game pieces and a 13th century toy soldier. In the pages of these books, knights battle with dice instead of swords, children shirk their winter duties to lob snowballs at each other, monkeys dance gleefully to “Ring-Around-a-Rosy,” and damsels forget their distress and go out for an afternoon of butterfly hunting. Through these images, this exhibition encourages visitors of all ages to explore a sense of whimsy and fun that is uniquely medieval, yet remarkably relevant to us today.


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