Lucas van Leyden - The Chess Players

by Alexandra Tuschka


At first glance, this may seem an unremarkable work - but it represents one of the first genre scenes on canvas in the entire history of art. And another thing: here, even at second glance, nothing is as it seems. 

A couple of the same age is playing a game of chess. The queen is about to move a piece, the man is scratching his head, brooding. Another man, obviously wealthy and elderly, is trying to manipulate the queen's move. Many different other people enliven the picture with no apparent connection to the foreground scene. The "courier chess" shown here is hardly played today and involves different pieces than today's chess. It was found by re-enacting the game that the queen was just making the winning move. What does this mean? 

Chess - in contrast to the frowned upon card game - was also a love metaphor. The sexes could playfully measure their strength in a game... and later continue this trial of strength in the private room. It is not for nothing that there are numerous wedding chests and decorative objects showing lovers playing chess. If we look more closely, we can also see that the lady and the older man are wearing wedding rings above her. Does she prefer the younger one, and does her husband still want to quickly prevent the move? Look closely with which finger she comments on his gesture! The stinky finger has been known since ancient times. One of the black figures stands between the white ones - it actually has no business being there. It is none other than the "spy" figure, which possibly tells us that a staged game is taking place here, and the husband quickly reaches into his coat pocket to dig out a few bills for a bribe? 


Lucas van Leyden was actually a talented engraver; his canvas works are rare and of lesser virtuosity. They show in the majority play scenes, which thematize the female power and large age differences, as with the "unequal pair". Moreover, van Leyden always makes room for the viewer at the table. So we may spontaneously take a seat, but at second glance the scene turns out to be something else. 


Lucas van Leyden - The Chess Players

Oil on wood, c. 1508, 27 × 35 cm, Gemäldegalerie in Berlin