Medieval Grotesqueries

A smiling being. Detail from ivory carving (mirror case), Paris, c. 1300

Gothic Games: Surrounded by Grotesquen​ess

The game of chess represented both love and war in the Middle Ages and the contest is mentioned in many of the romances of the period. It appears on caskets, combs, plaques and mirror covers throughout the fourteenth century in both France and Germany, and the finest examples appear to come from the same Paris atelier, perhaps from the hand of the same carver.[1]

Chess Game, Gothic ivory carving (mirror case, back side), Paris, c. 1300. Musée du Louvre, Paris

The mirror case depicting a chess game in the Louvre is the perfect quintessence of French courtly art around 1300. The composition is based on a chessboard and the interplay of the hands of three figures pointing to the chessmen. The scene is set under a tent with raised curtains to reveal a seated young man, legs crossed to symbolise of power, gripping the supporting post of the tent with one hand and picking one of the chess pieces with the other. Opposite him is a young woman wearing a hennin under her veil, the high cone-shaped headdress so much decried by preachers in the Middle Ages.
She is pointing to a chess piece with her finger and holding another two in her other hand, perhaps with the intention of cheating. The servant behind her, holding a crown, is suggesting a strategy. A pageboy stands behind the young man, a falcon in his fist. Four dragons frame this carefully crafted object, with its minute faces, the fine lines of the open eyes and the soft drapery.
It may be a representation of the game played by members of the aristocracy, many of whom were the patrons of ivory carvers. Unlike the game of dice, the symbol of brutish debauchery, chess represents courtly love governed by precise rules. However, as indicated by the crown held by the servant (an allusion to the success that may crown the hero's hopes is also an omen of the impending "dethroning" of the lover), it is definitely not a symbol of platonic love.

Michael Camille in reference to the mirror back in the Louvre indicates the sexually suggestive elements of the mise-en-scène: "That courtly couples were constrained by a different set of moves, which made love into a game, can be seen in an ivory mirror case representing a couple playing chess. Even when a couple are shown at the second stage of love and not physically touching as here, there are hints that the third, fourth and fifth stages are quickly approaching. This mirror is an elaborate allegory of desire in which the man is about to "check" his mate as he crosses one leg elegantly over the other in expectation and grasps the central tent pole like a phallic lance. This thrusting imagery continues in the presentation of the lady, whose body has literally been gouged out of the creamy ivory in a series of swaying Gothic folds, emphasizing her penetrability. Even the parted curtains that frame the whole intimate scene are … a well-understood sign, not only of the curtains around a bed, but also the anatomical opening of the woman’s body, which cannot be represented as such… Chess was the perfect allegorical device because it articulated the playful tension and the often violent conflict inherent in the strategies of seduction that formed the medieval art of love."[2]

Lovers playing Chess, Gothic ivory carving (on mirror case), Paris, c. 1300-25. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Courtly couples were constrained by a different set of moves, which made love into a game. They can be seen in this ivory mirror case representing a couple playing chess. In this elaborate allegory of desire the man is about to "check" his mate as he crosses one leg elegantly over the other in expectation while grasping the central tent pole like a phallic lance. This thrusting imagery continues in the presentation of the lady, emphasising her sexuality through the curves of her clothes. The woman conceils two chess pieces behind her back, as sign that she is conceiving him. All happens behind the parted curtains that give a voyeur look into the scene.

"Latrunculi novi ludius auxilium non includit. Taurus excrementum est" (The new chess set does not include a player aid. It is bullshit). Text detail from The Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux, prayer book [!], 1324-28.

According to R.H. Randall, "More mirror cases have survived than any other form of secular ivory. They are thin discs carved on the face with scenes of lovers, the Attack on the Castle of Love, or other subjects, while the back was so designed that a polished metal disc could be inserted to serve as a mirror. The ivory plaque was squared off for ease of handling and stability when set on a shelf by four corner terminals, each in the form of a small, long-eared biped monster with a long tail. The creature was in standard use by mirror makers, though an occasional example has human bipeds or lions."[3]

Siege of the Castle of Love, Gothic ivory carving (on mirror case), Paris, c. 1325-50

Historiated adj. Adorned with the figures of humans or animals or with foliage, often for narrative purposes. Used of initial letters in manuscripts and of the capitals of columns.

Grotesque initial encircling Ecclesia et Synagoga, from a thirteenth-century illuminated manuscript.

'Jousting Tournament'´- Ecclesia versus Synagoga, wood carving, 1400-1410. Cathedral of Erfurt, Germany.

A joust is a fight between mounted knights wearing armor and using lances, often as part of a tournament. The primary aim is to strike the opponent with the lance while riding towards him at high speed, if possible breaking the lance on the opponent's shield or armour, or unhorsing him. Jousting was a favorite form of entertainment during the Middle Ages. Jousting contests took place at Medieval tournaments which provided a venue for knights to practise various forma of combat to the delight, and for the amusement, of crowds of onlookers. The tournaments kept the knight in excellent condition for the role he would need to play during medieval warfare - skill with weapons and supreme strength and fitness were necessary to knights of the Middle Ages.[4]

Drollerie: grotesque jousting tournament (right below The Arrest of Christ), bas-de-page from Jean Pucelle, Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux, prayer book, 1324-28, fol. 15v. New York, Metropolit​an Museum of Art, The Cloisters, Acc. No. 54.1.2

Carnivalesque Marginalia

Initial "D" with hybrids, Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux, prayer book, 1324-28, fol. 166. Cloisters of New York City

Ibid., fol. 160

The Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has emphasized the importance of what he refers to as the carnivalesque imagination in medieval culture which was opposed to the official order of feasts of the church: "The men of the Middle Ages participated in two lives: the official and the carnival life. Two aspects of the world, the serious and the laughing aspect, co-existed in their consciousness. The co-existence was strikingly reflected in thirteenth and fourteenth-century illuminated manuscripts [...]. Here we find on the same page strictly pious illustrations [...] as well as free designs not connected with the story. The free designs represent chimeras (fantastic forms combining human, animal, and vegetable elements), comic devils, jugglers performing acrobatic tricks, masquereade figures, and parodical scenes--that is, purely grotesque carnivalesque themes. All these pictures are shown on the same page, which like medieval man's consciousness contains both aspects of life and the world. Not only miniatures but the decorations of medieval churches, as well as religious sculpture, present a similar coexistence of the pious and the grotesque. [...] However, in medieval art a strict dividing line is drawn between the pious and the grotesque; they exist side by side but never merge."[5]

Ibid., The Flagellation and The Nativity coexist with eye-catching drolleries

The world of the carnival and grotesque was an inversion of the world of official religion. In having the drunken whore play the Virgin and the fool play the king, the carnivalesque did not deny the dominant culture, but through its inversions, it validates the official world. What we see in the margins of the Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux recall the gargoyles of the Gothic cathedrals and anticipate the imagery of Rabelais and Brueghel.[6]

Ibid., bas-de-page

Notes and references
1. Victoria and Albert Museum, London: Playing Chess
2. Ibid.
3. Richard H. Randall Jr., Images In Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age, 1997, 63-79.
4. Middle Ages: Jousting; also Wikipedia
5. Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky, 1984, p. 96.
6. Farberas, State University of New York: Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux

Additional links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
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