About a Strangely Designed Chess Set

To celebrate The International Romani Day we asked three Roma children to choose objects from the collection of the museum and tell us how they can relate to these items.

By Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest

#International Romani Day #artworks in children’s stories

Meet Jancsi and the chess set

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Why did I choose this particular item?

Jancsi: We play chess at home with my mum, she taught me how to play. The design of the set is also exciting: I immediately noticed the purple-green fields and their pattern.

These two colours look great side by side, with the thin lines and the leaves drawn in the small squares, 

... but I also like the gold and white trim around the edge of the board. 
If I were ever to design a chess set, these are the details I would take over.

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

The pieces of the set are very nice, but strange. Would the elephant be the bishop? Or is it the rook? It is an interesting idea for a rook, too.

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Though it is old—perhaps from the last century—and seems to be a valuable object, I think this set was used daily, and wasn’t just an ornament. If I had one at home, my mum and I would play with it.


...I wonder who invented chess?

Chess set, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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My story for this work of art would go like this: There was a little kid once whose dad made chess sets. One year, his dad gave this little child a wooden board he had carved for his birthday. 

Chess set, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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It was a surprise, but the father had got his son’s taste right: the pieces were much simpler than the ones in the museum, but the board had the same pictures for the starting positions of the pieces. From that day on, every evening the whole family played chess with the gift set.

Why is this piece an important part of the Museum of Applied Arts’ collection?

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest


In the second part of the story, the head of the collection that contains the selected artwork talks about it, describes its context, contemporary Hungarian or European cultural history.

Called Turks versus Moors, this chess set is a superb item at the Museum of Applied Arts. Their very function already makes chess sets a representative type of objects. Historical and contemporary design sets are considered by museum professionals to be important pieces in private and public collections, - Diána Radványi says.

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

In the Europe of the Enlightenment, chess was seen as a means for developing the strategic thinking of rulers, and as the games went beyond mere entertainment, chess was played even during Lent. 

Sets from the 18th century that have survived in Europe were objects of prestige even at the time of their making, and were often meant for royalty.

It was also to meet royal needs that porcelain manufacturing was started in Europe, and the manufactory of Meissen was producing chess sets from its foundation in 1710. These were probably individual designs, but made for daily use.

We are not aware of two identical sets from Meissen, if pieces or boards may have similarities between them. Of the sets from the same period, the one in the Museum of Applies Arts is the largest, as well as the most ornate, thanks to its meticulous painted decoration.

Teapot Teapot, Johann Joachim Kändler|Meissen Manufactory, 1734, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Oil or Vinegar Cruet, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory (German, founded 1710); Modeled by: Johann Joachim Kandler (German, 1706-1775, active at Meissen, 1731-1775), About 1737, From the collection of: The Art Institute of Chicago
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Kaketoe, Meissener Porzellan Manufaktur, 1734, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum
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Terrine met deksel, in de vorm van een rode kool, Meissener Porzellan Manufaktur, ca. 1775, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum
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Its designer, Johann Joachim Kändler was the manufactory’s chief sculptor, and porcelain articles based on his models can be found in public and private collections from New York to Budapest. Like other works associated with him, the pieces in Budapest reflect his individual artistic style.

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

The purple and green colouring was probably to substitute for black, which at the time was usually used for small details or contours on porcelain items.

Chess set, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Chess set, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Chess set, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Chess set, From the collection of: Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest
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Interestingly, while the starting squares of both sides are decorated with iconographic elements that were associated with Turks at the time, physiognomies and costumes of the pieces are European. This iconographic discordance notwithstanding, the pieces belong to the same set, as is evident from the harmonised dimensions, the uniform use of green and purple, and the gestures of the kings and queens.

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Moor was the name applied in the period to the Muslims of North Africa, some of whom controlled the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Since the elephants were alien to both Turkish and European culture, they probably referred to the Moors.

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

In the European art of the period, the personification of Africa was usually accompanied by elephants, which played a key role in the common military history of the two continents as well: in the Punic war, the Carthaginians used battle elephants in their campaign against Rome.

Chess setMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest

Keep exploring!

Continue celebrating the International Roma Day with the Museum of Applied Arts collection and read the story about a The Meticulously Carved Astronomical Clock!

Credits: Story

The Museum of Applied Arts’ 2024 project was embraced by Tarnabod és mi (TaMi), a charity that, for over a decade, has been in contact with the Roma living in the village of Tarnabod. They organise camps, fun days, cook-outs and mentoring programmes for children with outstanding talents. With the approval of their parents, we share the first names of the children interviewed.

Interview with Jancsi and Diána Radványi

by Katalin Szemere and Sarolta Sztankovics (text)
Sarolta Sztankovics (ed.)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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