The Lewis chess pieces are among the most splendid Romanesque art of the second half of the twelfth century. Trondheim, the capital of the archbishopric Nidaros, founded in 1153, is regarded as the city of origin.
Although the chess pieces were found on the remote Scottish island of Lewis in 1831, the Norman origin is undeniable. Style, ornaments and decoration, the Berseker (a Norsk warrior) and similar sculpture found in the region point to Norman craftsmanship. Many questions remain though.
Who was the commissioner for example ? It is impossible to be sure without any written documents, but the context may gives some clues.
During the eleventh century, Norway developed into a Christian kingdom with colonies or possessions in parts of England, Scotland, Ireland and Iceland. Norman descendants also conquered England in 1066 and founded kingdoms in southern Europe and beyond.
Trondheim became the religious city with the shrine and relics of St. Olav (995-1030) who had brought Christianity to Norway. It was by his royal commands that the bishops settled in the cities of Trondheim, Bergen and Oslo.
It was also due to royal interference that Norway and its western colonies became a separate archbishopric with Trondheim as the archiepiscopal see. During the twelfth century, western Norway and Bergen in particular developed into one of the largest and busiest commercial centres of Scandinavia.
Trondheim became an important centre of the ivory trade. The political centre shifted to the south to Oslo, but Trondheim remained the religious capital. The building activities of the monarchy and the Church meant an exiting stimulus of Norwegian architecture and sculpture.
The wooden stave churches showed the artistic developments in the twelfth century. Wood carving and wooden architecture were traditional Norman skills, architecture and sculpture in stone required training, models and often foreign experience.
The norman Romanesque period began around 1080 and lasted until around 1210. The geographical position of Norway gives the best explanation of the various stylistic trends. Important impulses came from the British isles, the Shetlands and Orkneys (Hebrides) and from Normandy, Ireland, York, the Isle of Man and as far as the Mediterranean.
Denmark was more in contact with the Rhine region, Northern Germany, the Low Countries up to Switzerland. The sculptures in stone in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries found in Trondheim are of central importance to the understanding of Norman Romanesque art.
This context may contribute to the quest for the commissioner of the Lewis chess bishop: was it bishop Eystein Erlendsson (1120-1188) ? Eystein was the most influential archbishop of Nidaros and he tried to increase the ecclesiastic power at the expense of monarchic influence.
For this reason he had to leave the country and he went to exile in England in 1180, where he lived in Bury St.Edmunds and later in Lincoln.
Was the Lewis chess bishop meant for Eystein or one of his Norman colleagues in England ? (Source: M. Blindheim, Norwegian decorative sculpture 1090-1210 (London 1965).