So chess is...

So chess is...


This blog isn't exactly on chess... I've just started searching for chess paintings and images in the web. I've found many many great posts with beautiful collections, some thematic, some with reconstructive intentions of the displayed chess positions... Here it will be tried something else.

I've found some chess images, paintings mostly, that are based on historical events, or generally known stories. Hence, chess as an art symbol is more comprehensible. In other words, in this blog I've chosen to re-expose some paintings that made me read some more, in order to understand them a little better.

[great help for giving me prime info and guidelines, was the doct. (in greek) by Nikolas Sfikas, Paintings with chess as their subject from the 15th to the 20th century, 2007, in ΕΑΔΔ]

And so chess is....

... a game of war and strategy or something that totally occupies our minds?

[artists: J C Vermeyen // P Troschel // K Swoboda // J H W Tischbein // P Tardy]

... a diplomacy field

[artist: J G Vibert]

... a game of love or love itself???

[artists: A Varotari - Padovanino //  Meister E. S. // Lucy Madox Brown

... just a game

[artist unknown: MSS for William's of Tyre Eracles  MS 2824 // MSS 828, W137 & 142


.. a game of war and strategy or something that occupies our minds?

John Frederick I..... [up]

Johann Friedrich der Großmütige beim Schachspiel [1550 ca] attributed to Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen [1504 – 1559 ca], Dutch painter, presenting Johann Frederick I, the Magnanimous, elector of Saxony [left] playing chess with his Spaniard guard, probably during his imprisonment by Charles V at Brussels during these years.

I'm taking as evidence for the origin of the painting the host museum's webpage catalog, [Schloss Friedenstein Gotha = Gotteswort und Menschenbild by A. Schuttwolf & W. Schade, vol1, 1994, pp. 56-57]. But Antonio Moro, an at the time Dutch painter too, has also been suggested as the creator [Marion Faber, Das Schachspiel, 1988, p. 77]. This disagreement among the authors has been transferred in web too. An interesting passage on this: "The Elector had made the painting in two copies, of which he gave one to his co-player (?)... The authorship is contentious." [=ft 40 in Johann Friedrich I by Leppin, Schmidt, Wefers, 2006, p. 370 (in german)  ]. Sfikas, p.70, informs us that there're two similar paintings, one by each painter, both in Gotha. Anyway...


By the image I couldn't specify the position exactly, but I've read somewhere [can't remember where so to link it] that it's from medieval chess.

Firstly a little of history really briefly...

It was at Muhlberg, Saxony, that the [1st] Schmalkaldic War was decided, in April 1547. A war that started a year before, between Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and some Lutheran German Princes [the Schmalkaldic League, formed since 1531]. One of these Lutheran German states was Saxony, with Wittenberg as its capital. At Muhlberg, Charles V had the aid of the Spanish Duke of Alba and his army, while on the other side was our hero, John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony and a leader of this German military union.

The Battle of Muhlberg was won by Charles V, on 24 Apr 1547, and the Elector was imprisoned. His death was decided as a sentence for this rebellion [possibly on May 10], that was avoided by the Capitulation of Wittenberg, on May 19. With this treaty John ceded the electorate and was succeeded by his cousin Prince Maurice [at the time seemingly Charles' ally]. Afterwards, John Frederick was transferred at Brussels [beloved city of Charles V], as a prisoner [with an intermediate stop at Augsburg during 1547/48]. He was released 5 years later.

Detail from Enea Vico's The Battle of Mühlberg with the army of Charles V crossing the Elbe River [1551] in Metropolitan Museum of Art


When historians are dealing with the Battle of Muhlberg particularly, they are mentioning Charles' V initiative and John Friedrich's mistakes as the causes of the Germans' defeat. Charles V had a smaller army. But the Elector had previously splitted unreasonably his troops in other towns. Probably not expecting the Emperor's army to pass the Elbe river and attack, as the nearest Meissen bridge had already been down. And retreating towards Wittenberg, he lost the battle and had been captured.

[among many, Three Centuries of Modern History by Charles Duke Yonge, 1872, p. 86  and Johann Friedrich der Grossmütige by Georg Mentz, vol3, 1908, pp. 99-107]

So what are we seeing? The obvious? Chess as a resemblance of war and strategy?

But a passage I've read, attracted my attention too. It's written that the painting was made after the Elector's commissioning order, while being in captivity [?] [="Den in der Gefangenschaft in Brüssel schachspielenden Johann Friedrich zeigt schon ein von dem Kurfürsten selbst wohl 1549 in Auftrag gegebenes Gemälde." in Johann Friedrich I, p. 369-370].

Trying for a confirmation anywhere, I've found some relative excerpts in the biography by Mentz [1908]. It's written [vol3, p. 274] that the Elector, during his captivity 1547-1552, had come in contact with many painters, commissioning and buying some works, and generally being portrayed, but without mentioning this one particularly.

One, eg, that is mentioned generally is a portrait by Titian, possibly in Augsburg during 1547-48, where Titian is found, after Charles' V invitation [can be seen in Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien]. And further, is described the well known case of Lucas Cranach the Elder, a German painter close to the Elector's family for many years, that joined him, as his companion, during his captivity for some time. To these should be added the Mentz's mention about Elector's good relationships with the Spaniards during his captivity [vol3, p. 276, ft.3, with some reference].

Strange approach!

If that's the case, what's this? A happy prisoner? Or self-sarcasm???

In any case the irony in playing chess against your guard, while being a war prisoner, is obvious...

[sources: Johann Friedrich der Grossmütige by Georg Mentz, vol3, 1908, p. 274 // Die Malerfamilie CRANACH by Werner Schade, 1974, pp. 85-86 // Lucas Cranach des Aeltern (B1) by Christian Schuchardt, 1851 // Titian by Joseph Crowe & Giovanni Cavalcaselle, vol2, 1877. pp. 171 and after // The History of Modern Europe by Thomas Henry Dyer, 1861, pp. 69, 76, 81 // Emperor Charles V by James D. Tracy, 2002, pp. 218-219, 231].


Etching, possibly by Peter Troschel, 1645, showing the elector John Frederic I playing chess with Ernest III, Duke of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, both imprisoned after the battle of Muhlberg, while hearing his death sentence by a messenger, on May 10, 1547, [included in Der Römischen Keyser by Friedrich Hortleder (1546-1558), 1645, p. 722]. This engraving is possibly after a detail of Christian Richter's painting of the same time [in bildindex].


Maybe the earliest written history of these Schmalkaldic War events, and particularly of the battle of Muhlberg, is just a few years later, in 1552, by Hieronymus [Girolamo] Faleti, in Venice [independent state but Charles' V ally at the time, and Titian's native land]. In the 6th book it's described the scene:

the Elector, being a war prisoner with Ernest III, after Muhlberg's defeat, possibly at his enemy's camp, is hearing of his death sentence decision by a messenger, on May 10, 1547. After replying something heroic, he invited his co-prisoner, Ernest III, to play chess with him "with such a joyful spirit, that others only have in free happiness"   [="Ilche detto invitò Hernesto à giocare a scacchi con quello animo allegro, che altri in libera felicità suol havere; senza maniera alcuna di prigioniere, non che di sententiato alla morte." in Prima Parte de la guerre di Alamagna by Hieronymus Faleti, 1552, p. 283].

The legendary scene survived for a century and was repeated, almost as an exact translation, by Friedrich Hortleder in 1645 in his history work about the events of 1546-1558, from which the above engraving   [Der Römischen Keyser, 1645, p. 722 // it also can be found in the intermediate Carolea Inchiridion by Ochoa de la Salde, Lisbon, 1585, fo.337].

Mentz also mentions Faleti. Describing the tranquility that the Elector showed after the defeat at Muhlberg, wasting his time playing chess on April 27, he comments that this should be based on the belief that Charles V didn't mean in reality this death sentence [="... aus der Ueberzeugung, daß der Kaiser es gar nicht ernst damit meine", with some reference, in vol3, p. 105-106].


This beautiful theme, placing Johann Frederick in captivity and playing chess with Ernest III, while hearing his death sentence, was tried and by later artists. Johannes Samuel Blaettner painted it around 1650 [mentioned in Alles über Schach by Ehn & Kastner, 2010, p. 153 ]. An etching, possibly by Christian Gottlieb Geyser, can be also found in a 1788 work [Allgemeine Weltgeschichte für Kinder by Johann Matthias Schröckh, vol3, 1788, p. 514] and an egraving by Emil Eugen Sachsse in akg-images].


But my favorite is the following...

Verkündigung des Todesurteils an den Kurfürsten Johann Friedrich von Sachsen (1503-1554) im Jahre 1547 by Karl Swoboda, 1858, in artnet


some Lutherans' revenge?!... an interesting side note...

Murray, in his History p. 841, along with the small reference to John Frederick I, gives this: "Visch and Hessels were similarly at chess when Ryhove of Ghent haled them forth to instant execution in 1578 (Motley, Dutch Republic, VI, i)".

Motley, on this passage [p. 70], is referring to Pieter Bor and Pieter Hooft, two Dutch historians of the early 1600s, who each wrote a history of the Dutch revolt or the Eighty Years War [1568-1648], the war for the independence of Netherlands, from the Spanish crown, having also some characteristics of a conflict between catholicism and lutheranism-calvinism.

Arrest of the Duke of Aarschot on 28 Oct 1577, engraving by Franz Hogenberg in Aitzing's De Leone Belgico, 1588, p. 229


We are in Ghent, Belgium, in Oct 1578. The pacification of Ghent two years earlier, has given to the rebels [Lutherans-Calvinists] some freedom, while the memories of the Spanish cruelties were still fresh [especially the events of the Sack of Antwerp in 1576]. Ghent, Charles' V native land, was a unique case.

On 28 Oct 1577 in Ghent, via an illegal overthrow [that established the Calvinist Republic of Ghent, 1577-1584], Ryhove and Hembyse, local political leading figures of Calvinism, arrested the Duke of Aarschot, catholic governor of Antwerp, and some other members of local nobility and clergy. Among them, Jacob Hessels of the spanish Council of Troubles, and John Visch, formely of the Ingelmunster's baillif. A year later [possibly in front of a liberation possibility ?], on 4 Oct 1578, Ryhove picked Hessels and Visch from their prison and hung them!

Both Bor and Hooft mention some chessboard in their description of the scene!

A translation effort by me [??]: "Ryhoove steps into the prison, with his fellows. Hessels and Visch, no suspicious at all, and with their minds on the chessboard, were called." [="treedt Ryhoove, met het zyne naa de gevankenis. Hessels en Visch, op geen ding min verdacht, en met de zinnen in 't schaakberdt, worden afgeroepen." Pieter Hooft in dbnl].

Seems that chess between prisoners that are about to die, survived as a memory in the catholic-lutheran conflict!

No painting of this scene is found. However, François de Halewyn [imprisonned too] seems to remember the scene with Hessels eating and Visch playing tables [Mémoires, p. 93]. Anyway...

[sources: Nederlandsche Oorlogen by Pieter Bor, vol 2, 13th book, 1679, fol.71, p. 6 // Nederlandsche historien by Pieter Hooft, 1677, vol 2, 14th book, p. 605  or in dbnl  // Dutch Republic by John Lothrop Motley, 1900, part V, in vol 5, pp. 71-72 // Memoires sur les troubles de Gand by François de Halewyn, 1865, p. 93 // De instauratie der Gentse Calvinistische Republiek by Andre Despretz, 1963, p. 10, ft. 40 // De Gentse stadsmagistraat tijdens de calvinistische Republiek, doctorate by Bart Vander Schelden, 2010].


The scene is borrowed ??... [up]

Conradin von Schwaben und Friedrich von Österreich im Kerker ihr Todesurteil erfahrend by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1784 [in Gotha Museum & wikicommons], possibly after the commissioning order of Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. Conradin should be in the middle, turning his head behind the back. A smaller similar can be seen in the Hermitage Museum.


The scene with two prisoners, that are about to be assassinated, playing chess, seems to inspire and later stories. But were they later?

Brief background firstly:

Conradin [1252-1268], was the last heir of the Hohenstaufen house in Germany. In 1254, after his father's death [Conrad IV], Conradin, 2 years old, inherited the Duchy of Swabia and the Kingdom of Sicily. In Sicily things were a little complicated. Since 1250, Manfred [Conradin's uncle] was acting as a representative of his brother, king Conrad IV, and since 1254 as Conradin's representative. And during the years 1258-1266, Manfred was the king of Sicily, with some permission seemingly by Conradin.

On 26 Feb 1266, the French Charles I of Anjou, defeated and killed Manfred in the battle of Benevento, capturing the kingdom of Sicily. This activated Conradin and marched towards Sicily. And on 23 Aug 1268, he with his allies faced Charles in the Battle of Tagliacozzo. Conradin lost possibly cause of some Charles' hidden last forces [strategy?]. Tried for escape but was captured. He was beheaded, along with his companion Frederick I, Margrave of Baden, on 29 Oct 1268 in Naples.

[among others, Medieval European Coinage by Grierson & Travaini, vol14, 1986, pp. 141, 186 //  History of the city of Rome in the middle ages by Ferdinand Gregorovius, 1897, vol5, pt I & pt II]


The above scene is after Conradin's arrest, hearing his death sentence while playing chess. It's said by many that it's after a Johann Jakob Bodmer's poem of 1771, while other insist that it's based on an historic event. After some search, I think that I tend to confirm the latter.

Riccobaldo of Ferrara [1246-1320 ca] is one of the prime sources of the events, but in Latin. The following passage is from his Historia [written in early 14th century ca, found in Muratori's scriptores]:

"Karulus hujus consilium amplexus, Conradum & ceteros morti addixit. Ludente ergo schachis Conrado, ei defertur Regis judicium, & modicum temporis assignatur, ut animae saluti possit consulere." = "Charles surrounded of this counsil, condemns Conrad and others to death. And while Conrad was playing chess, the king's judgement was brought and a little of time was assigned, so to be able to ask for soul salvation."..........

[=my translation (????) from Ricobaldi Ferrariensis Historia in Muratori's Rerum Italicarum scriptores, vol9, 1726, p. 138]. Of course Simonde de Sismondi, in his italian history, is also writting about Conradin's playing chess, having a reference to Riccobaldo [Histoire des républiques italiennes vol3, 1826, p. 388].

I couldn't track any relative excerpt in other latin historians. But Murray [p. 750] mentions an interesting passage in the medieval French poem Roman de la Rose [concluded 1275 ca], where the story of Conradin, Manfred and Charles is narrated. There chess is used clearly as a resemblance of war and strategy, while it seems that Conradin is presented almost a coward, leaving the battle. Just 4 translated lines around no 6660 for a clue:

"... these two [Conradin & Henry of Castile], like foolish boys, lost rooks, fools, pawns, and knights in the game, and scrambled off the board, such fear did they have of being captured in the game that they had undertaken."

Unfortunately, in the MSS illustrations, I've found only Manfred in battle, not any illustration of Conradin. [For MSS and also translation in Roman de la Rose by De Lorris and De Meun, trans by Charles Dahlberg, p. 128 (from line 6631) and after].

Charles I of Naples Defeats Manfred, from MS. Douce 195, f. 48r in Bodleian Library


Many years later, Bodmer wrote his poem in 1771 under the title "Conradin von Schwaben", that possibly is what Ernest II had in mind when was commissioning Tischbein for the painting. The relative passage, where Conradin plays chess, is on p. 17. Bodmer seems to use chess as a means for Conradin's courage emphasis. Also Marq. Emilia Del Bufalo della Valle, wrote a theater play in 1889, placing Conradin playing chess in prison. In the footnotes she claims that this is an historic fact [Conradin de Hohenstaufen by Marq. Emilia Del Bufalo della Valle, 1889, p. 163, ft. 34].

It's my feeling that is Conradin's story that inspired the Elector's painting and not the opposite!


And in the end of course there's a Walker's article-story in the Fraser's Magazine, Aug 1841, p. 168  [repeated in Palamede Jan 1842, p. 53 and illustrated in the Strand Magazine, Jan 1893, p. 219], where our famous Ruy Lopez is playing chess vs Don Gusman in prison, while the latter is waiting for his execution.

The story has a happy end, as the conspiracy, that placed Don Gusman in jail, was revealed. Must be said that in Palamede there was an attempt for a position reconstruction by William Bone, British problemist.

Although the story, in Fraser's Magazine, is said to be based on Spanish Monastery archives, Murray [p. 817 ft. 8] doesn't believe it.

I couldn't confirm anything!




... a diplomacy field

I think that the previous subchapter could be a single blog.

Check by Jehan-Georges Vibert [1840-1902], undated [?], presenting Napoleon over a chessboard with his uncle Cardinal Joseph Fesch, in Haggin Museum [check description]


Although both, Fesch and Napoleon are historic figures, and the latter was known as a chess player, there's no certain story that this painting is based on. It's more their relationship!

Fesch's presentation with his Cardinal uniform in a room of the palace of Fontainebleau [according to the description], should refer to events surely after 1803.

Fesch's main part in the French history was as a diplomat.

Napoleon and the French Consulate, placed Fesch as an ambassador in Rome, since April 1803. From the first days of 1804 a diplomacy plan was activated. Napoleon was elected first Emperor of France on 18 May 1804 by the Consultate, but a papal approval would be a strong political act. As Englund writes: "To put the case for the ceremony with forceful simplicity: a papal consecration given in Paris would astound the world and cut the ground out from under the naysayers all over, both in France and without" . So Fesch in Rome entered in action.

After some preliminary negotiations by Fesch, Napoleon invited the Pope Pius VII to Paris. The latter was convinced to attend the ceremony of Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of France, that finally took place on 2 Dec 1804 in Notre Dame, Paris. Possibly with an ambition to regain some of what Catholic Church had lost since 1796. Pius VII met Napoleon at the palace of Fontainebleau and every historian I've read, writes that he set as a precondition for his presence at the ceremony, the previous blessing of the wedding between Napoleon and Josephine.

They had already been married since 1796, but via a civil ceremony. More older texts describe an inhouse fight between Napoleon and Josephine. As I understand it, it should be about the coronation. In order Josephine to be crowned too, Pius VII demanded a previous religious wedding for his presence [or as Prince Napoleon wrote in 1887, "...pour satisfaire aux scrupules de Joséphine"].

And it was Fesch who blessed their union just one day before the coronation. These days were the peak of Fesch's diplomatic career. Afterwards, the disagreements between Napoleon and Pius VII [during 1806-1807], with the parallel conciliatory attempts by Fesch, brought a crush in the relationship between uncle and nephew.

Fesch is an historic example of clergy intervention in politics and Vibert seemed to love anti-clerical art.

[sources: Napoleon: A Political Life by Steven Englund, 2010, p. 244 // Le divorce de Napoléon by Henri Welschinger, 1889, p. 13 // Le Cardinal Fesch by Mgr Ricard, 1893, p. 119 // The Age of Napoleon, collective work, 1989, p. 135 // Napoléon et ses détracteurs by prince Napoléon, 1887, p. 69 // plus in & in].


... a game of love or love itself???

Mars and Venus play chess by Alessandro Varotari Padovanino [1588 – 1649], 1635 ca, [in Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Augusteum //]


Padovanino here chose to present a very old legend scene, using chess. Generally Venus was a beloved theme for Padovanino.

This scene, where chess has arbitrarily been placed, is from Homer's Odyssey, 750 BCE ca [8th rhapsody, lines 261-366]. In Odyssey, the legend-story is told as a song by Dimodokos in the land of Phaeacians, and starts like... "and sang of the love of Ares and Aphrodite of the fair crown, how first they lay together in the house of Hephaestus secretly..." [in perseus].

Aphrodite [goddess of love], married with Hephaestus [the ugly mechanic-craftsman god], fell in love with Ares [god of war]. Their forbidden union was seen by Helios [Sun] who informed at once Hephaestus. Then the latter, pretending being in the island of Lemnos, placed some divine unbreakable nets, that he'd created, on their bed. After the illicit lovers were caught, Hephaestus called all the other gods of Olympus, so to humiliate them.

After some deprecating comments by the gods, this was written: "Such were the comments, then Lord Apollo, son of Zeus, said to Hermes: ‘Guide and Giver of Good Things, Hermes, Zeus’ son, would you not care to lie in bed beside golden Aphrodite, even though you were snared by unbreakable chains?’ The Messenger-God, Slayer of Argus, replied: ‘Lord Apollo, Far-Shooter, three times as many inescapable links could hold me, and you gods could be watching, and yes, all the goddesses too, if only I might sleep with golden Aphrodite.’ At this, laughter rose from the group of immortal gods." [lin. 333-343, translation taken from poetryintranslation].

A "divorce" followed...


Chess between lovers is from the earliest themes...

Liebesgarten by the anonymous Meister E. S. [c.1420 – c.1468], 1465 ca, in Dresden digital library


But the following I think it's a unique case

The Tempest by Lucy Madox Brown [1843 – 1894], 19th century [private collection // in bridgemanimages, presenting Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess, scene from Shakespeare's theater play The Tempest.


This scene, from Shakespeare's play, has been a popular topic among artists, but this one portrays in a best way, I think, the stared by love faces.

The Tempest's plot briefly:

A sudden Tempest is shaking a ship hard, near a lonely island [in the Mediterranean Sea?]. Prospero, a magician, and his [15y old??] daughter, Miranda, are standing on the shore watching the wreckage. Prospero starts to narrate to his daughter, that once was the Duke of Milan who lost his Duchy by his brother Antonio, with the help of the King of Naples, Alonso. Adding that a good fortune brought these men there with this ship.

The shipwreck was caused by a Prospero's magic trick, while, according to the plan, the castaways have been splitted in the island.

One group is Ferdinand alone. The handsome prince of Naples, Alonso's son, with which Miranda falls in love immediately. Prospero imprisons him, making him work as a servant, giving in fact the chance for their love to grow. An other group is Prospero's old enemies, Antonio & Alonso, who are suffering by magic tricks and illusions. One third is just some drunks.

Towards the end [act IV] Prospero is giving his blessing to the union of Ferdinand and Miranda, telling to Ferdinand....:

... and after some lines [as the script demanded] Prospero adds: "If you be pleased, retire into my cell / And there repose. A turn or two I’ll walk / To still my beating mind."... and the couple leaves.

On the last V Act, Prospero meets at last his old enemies and a reconciliation comes. Alonso says that is looking for his son... and then Prospero, drawing a curtain, reveals the couple playing chess, while Miranda's teasing Ferdinand for cheating!? The marriage was arranged to take place in Naples...


I'm not so familiar with Shakespeare. But in this particular case, one thing that is noticeable is that The Tempest is categorized among Shakespeare's comedies, according to First Folio, 1626 [the first complete collection of his plays after his death]. Although, experts prefer to call it a tragicomedy, either way there certainly are comic elements.

Vaughan writes an interesting thought:

"What if Prospero, a proven master of reverse psychology, similarly pretends to discourage the newly engaged couple from indulging in premarital sex? Excusing himself on the pretext of ‘weakness’ and ‘infirmity’, Prospero invites the young lovers, who have just watched a masque about the birds and the bees, to make use of his bed while he walks once or twice around the island. Prospero is neither infirm nor taking a leisurely stroll to clear his head. He is multitasking like mad. Following the unceremonious ending to the wedding masque, Prospero has improvised an epicurean epithalamium, a Renaissance carpe diem lyric, for his daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law. If Miranda and Ferdinand do have sex when they ‘retire’ and ‘repose’, that would explain why Prospero chooses to reveal the couple playing a game of chess. The object of chess is to ‘mate’ one’s opponent: in the space of a few hours, the Duke of Milan has effectively ‘mated’ the King of Naples and made their two families into one." [in The Tempest: A Critical Reader by A. T. Vaughan & V. M. Vaughan, 2014, p. 185],

To the simple reader's eyes, like mine, chess here seems as a joke to father's forbiddance or as sex allegory.



... just a game

from MS Fr.2824, f.94v. Histoire de la guerre sainte par Guillaume de Tyr, 13th century, 15th book. Presenting the Siege of Shaizar by the Byzantine Emperor John II Comnenus, in spring of 1138, while Raymond of Antioch and Joscelin II of Edessa are playing chess [on left].


The illustrated event occurred during the first campaign of the Byzantine Emperor John II Comnenus at Syria, in the years 1137-38.

A grey topic for the historiography, as the prime sources seem to present some facts a little differently, but not necessarily opposite, namely Wiliam of Tyre, John Kinnamos & Niketas Choniates [the two latter Byzantines]. Here will be presented mainly the William's version as more detailed, preferred by the modern historians, but mainly cause the illustrations are from his history [for the topic of the various sources, see, Byzantium and the Crusades by Jonathan Harris, 2006, pp. 82-85].

In 1137 the Byzantine Emperor John II Comnenus decided to attack to the city of Antioch, claiming some older rights. The principality of Antioch was a recently founded crusader state, that at the time was governed by prince Raymond. Comnenus was winning and a treaty was agreed. According to this, Comnenus had the right to enter into Antioch, whenever he wanted. And additionally, it was agreed that if Comnenus managed to capture some Ottoman cities of Syria, namely Aleppo, Shaizar, Hama & Homs, then these would pass under Raymond's control, who would give back the city of Antioch to Comnenus. Strange agreement that has caused some questioning! Anyway.

According to the plan, Comnenus, Raymond, but also Joscelin II, Count of Edessa [the latter after invitation], attacked to the city of Shaizar. Some indifference by Raymond and Joscelin is mentioned, that caused a delay or some failure to the Byzantine-Frankish army. This indifference is illustrated above. In the end they took the city but not the citadel. And with the fear of following cruelties, Shaizar asked for the end of this siege, giving in return some wealth.


Before we check anything else, it must be said that William of Tyre [1130 – 1186], wrote his history in Latin in 23 books, during 1170 -1184 [our story is at the start of 15th book]. The text of course remained, but really few latin MSS have survived from the first period [the oldest are since 1200]. In the first half of 13th century, a French translation was made, that appeared in many illustrated manuscripts. Differences have been noted between the two lingual versions, but among the MSS of the same language too.

[gratitude to the doct. The Old French translation of William of Tyre, PhD by Philip David Handyside, 2012 & Latin Literature and Frankish Culture in the Crusader States (1098–1187) by Julian Jay Theodore Yolles, 2015, giving me prime info].

The relative excerpt in the French text, and since 13th century, mentions that, while Comnenus was fighting at the siege of Shaizar, they [Raymond & Joscelin]  "... jooient as tables es as eschès..." [=they were playing tables and chess]. This is noticed in all the French texts I could check [over 15]. The original Latin text seems to be a little different. It mentions that they "... aleam ludebant..." [=they were playing cubes/dice].

It must be said that this is the latin version that surely is found everywhere. I've managed to track five of the about ten latin MSS that are said to survive. As far as I could search [and with much doubt], in the oldest [found in Vatican Library, early 13th cent. // Vat. Lat. 2002], the crucial part, that interests us, is missing, and not by accident. An other, in Vatican too [Reg. Lat. 690], a little later, has also a gap on the same chapter, but smaller. In the rest 3, I've managed to track the relative excerpt. This concerned me in order to track, if I could, who placed the game-scene in the text, William of Tyre or the French translator? Maybe of low interest. As, in the mentioned Yolles', p. 74, ft. 248: "None of the extant manuscripts constitute William’s autograph, nor indeed were any of the manuscripts produced in the Latin East. Huygens separates the manuscripts into an English and a French strain, concluding that no manuscripts came from the German or Italian regions." Anyway... for the record I've tracked, MS Vat.Lat. 2002 [early 13th c.] // MS Reg. Lat. 690 [13th c.] // MS lat. 6066 [late 13th c.] // Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 95 [14th c.] // MS lat. 17153 [late 15th c.].

Comp: up Latin MS lat. 6066, f.137 [late 13th c.] & down French MS 5220, f. 310 [13th c.]

In any case William of Tyre describes their indifference, placing them playing some game of dice, giving as an excuse their young age [adolescentes in Latin, joene home in French] . But the 13th century French translator changed it from "dice" to "tables and chess". On which some French MSS illustrations were based. The English translation of 1943 mentions "games of chance".

[sources: Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum by William of Tyre, book 15, ch.1 (in Latin) online & in (latin+old French) Recueil des historiens des croisades. Historiens occidentaux, vol1, 1844, p. 655 // A history of deeds done beyond the sea, transl. by E. A. Babcock, 1943, vol2, p. 95 // Byzantium and the Crusades by Jonathan Harris, 2006, pp. 82-85 // John II Komnenos, Emperor of Byzantium by Martin Vucevic, 2016, p. 86-89 // The Old French translation of William of Tyre, PhD by Philip David Handyside, 2012 // Latin Literature and Frankish Culture in the Crusader States (1098–1187) by Julian Jay Theodore Yolles, 2015 // Nicetae Choniatae Historia (greek+latin), p. 36 // Ioannis Cinnami Epitome (greek+latin), p. 18]

Three more French MSS illustrations of the same scene...

from Ms 828, f. 160v [ca. 1280] in Bibliothèque numerique de Lyon


from Ms. W.137, f. 157v [late 13th century] in The Walters Art Museum, with this following comment: "Note: this has usually been described as a scene of men playing chess, but close examination reveals dice on the board rather than chess pieces. This may be a strange conflation of two traditions associated with this story, in which they are usually described as playing dice, but are sometimes depicted playing chess."


from MS 142, f. 153v, late 13th cent., in enluminures