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Monday, January 07, 2013

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen: The Chess Players

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen: Kurfürst Johann Friedrich von Sachsen in der Gefangenschaft beim Schachspiel mit einem spanischen Bewacher
(Elector John Frederick of Saxony in captivity playing chess with a Spanish guard)
oil on canvas, 1548
Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig
no copyright infringement intended

I found the image above (a painting by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen) in a short history of chess, authored by Frank Mayer. Actually the story told by Mayer was mainly about chess prohibition, along the centuries and across the monotheistic civilizations. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each one in turn has tried to prohibit chess, but (fortunately) it was no way. Eventually everybody understood that playing chess was not at all a sin, far from that. And even some illustrious theologians, doctors of the church, became aficionados.   Santa Teresa de Ávila enjoyed this game. She mentioned chess in one of her writings (The Way of Perfection, Chapter 16, paragraphs 1 - 2; c. 1567) to illustrate the relationship between this game and ethics.

Is chess always innocent? Speaking about chess and chess players, there is a movie that is patiently waiting to be watched (by me). I have it on DVD: The Chess Players by Satyajit Ray. It's exactly about this, the innocence and fake innocence of chess. To my shame, I didn't find the time to watch it so far. But, on the other hand, chess is a play of patience, isn't it?

All this is fine, only I haven't said so far a word about the painting of Vermeyen. Instead, two friends of mine commented it at once. For one of them (Radu Ilarion Munteanu) the two personages were Carolus Quintus and Henry VIII. For the other friend (Horia Tudosie), the board game on the canvas could have been anything but chess. Actually both friends doubted that it was chess, due to the impossible position of the pieces on the board. It was making sense, thus I took a more careful look at the thing.

I discovered a closer view of the painting, focusing on the board:

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen: Kurfürst Johann Friedrich von Sachsen in der Gefangenschaft beim Schachspiel mit einem spanischen Bewacher
close up
(Chess Artwork Project by Jonathan B. Crumiller)
no copyright infringement intended

The pieces look very Baroque (should I say even Rococo? anyway, Baroque or Rococo avant la lettre), and, though their position on the board seems to be kind of impossible, it is chess anyway.

Actually the close up is focusing also on the hands of the two men: two hands in dialog. A dialog of silence and of tension, and here we come to the personages. The fat one is not Henry VIII of England (though he looks like). It's John Frederick I the Magnanimous (Kurfürst Johann Friedrich der Altere), Elector of Saxony and the head of the coalition of Lutheran princes of Germany (the Schmalkaldic League). He remained known in history as the Champion of the Reformation. The painting shows him while in captivity: at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547 he was defeated and taken prisoner. Charles Quintus considered the Elector a convicted rebel and sentenced him to death, then changed the condemnation into imprisonment for life. Eventually in 1552 he was released. So here on the canvas, the Elector is playing chess with his guard (a Spanish nobleman - only a nobleman could have guarded a Prince Elector). Is it an allusion to Charles Quintus (as Radu Ilarion Munteanu suggested)? It could be, after all, and the dramatic relations between the two could very well been symbolized by a chess game: a game with the pieces in an impossible position on the board, as the whole situation between Elector and Emperor was impossible to solve. Also Horia Tudosie is somehow right in his supposition.

Interesting is that in the Friedenstein Castle in Gotha there is another painting with the same title (and looking exactly the same). This time the author is  Anthonis Mor.

Anthonis Mor, Kurfürst Johann Friedrich der Altere von Sachsen spielt Schach mit einem spanischen Adeligen
oil on canvas
Friedenstein Castle in Gotha
no copyright infringement intended

Which of them is the original, and which of them the copy? We could speculate, of course, but frankly, I don't know the answer and possibly there is no answer in certainty.  What I think is that it goes what's always going in such matters: Philosphi certant.

(Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen)

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