Tuesday 30 July 2013

Images of games, images of harmony?

In the study of medieval Spain the term of the convivencia is well known. However, the harmonious image that has often been associated with it has been frequently challenged. The illusion of a peaceful and tolerant coexistence has been dispelled by studies that uncovered episodes of intolerance and violence. One document that has sometimes been used to illustrate the harmony between Muslims, Jews and Christians is the libro de los juegos or libro del ajedrez, dados y tablas. This manuscript, created in Seville in 1283, primarily contains texts on chess, but also on dice and tables. Its illuminations show a wide array of figures, Kings and peasant, men and women, but also representations of Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is not hard to fathom why such imagery of figures of different religions being involved in games of intellect and chance could be used to illustrate their harmonious lives along side each other. Yet, a closer look reveals that this manuscript by no means lacks political and ideological meaning. 

Figure 1

On fol. 22r the viewer can witness a chess game between two Muslims. The two men playing, are depicted as barefoot, with elegant clothing and turbans, apparently Muslims of higher prestige. While they are engaged in the game, they are surrounded by three women, who serve the players food and drinks, and entertain them with harp music. However subtle, some aspects in the image seem to disagree with a tolerant scene of a leisurely court scene.

One of the women appears to cast her gaze upon the player of the right, whose eye do not seem to rest on the game, but rather on her body, whose shape is slightly revealed by her light garment.[1] Though we might just consider this an amusing detail, it can also be understood less humourous. The implied notions of seduction and sexuality depicts the Muslim woman in a negative light for the contemporary audience and thereby puts her characterisation in a longer tradition of the non-Christian Other as lustful.

Figure 2

The male participant of this little flirtation seems to be the object of further ridicule. He is shown as being distracted by his physical desires, thereby questioning his intellectual capacities as well as his abilities in warfare seeing as the former was understood as a metaphor for the later. Finally the position of the image within the manuscript itself seems to be of significance. It is located right opposite of a Western court scene. A position that suggests a comparison between the two courtly scenes. Even though the Muslims appear richly dressed, they pale in comparison to the splendour of their Western equivalent, making these pairs of images a highly ideological argument for the superiority of Christian culture. [2]

An image of a game of dice between a Jew and a Christian shows similar visual policies. It has to be noted, that the manuscript only shows Jews winning a game of dice, but never of chess. This fact alone might be understood as slightly debasing, considering the manuscript tells its audience that chess is the superior game. [3]

The scene on fol. 71V shows such a game of dice between a Christian and a Jew, both players accompanied by an entourage of three. The scene shows the Christian player, who just lost, stretching out his hand with an insulting gesture towards his victorious opponent, while the winner seems to point out his victory with his left hand.

Figure 3
Remarkable in this scene is how each group is characterised.[4] The Christian attendants seem to parallel the forward leaning body movement of the Christian player, suggesting their support and visually emphasising the unity of their group. The companions of the Jewish player, however, seem less involved. One is hardly visible or involved, two of them seem to secretly whisper to each other, appearing to discuss the outcome of the game. This opposition of formal, unified Christians and chaotic Jewish bodies also appears at other places in the manuscript, suggesting that these compositions are signifying qualities of the represented groups.

Even though there are more examples are possible, these two should have given a glimpse of the visual strategies used in the imagery. It does depict Christians along side Jews and Muslims, playing games, communicating a co-existence. However, it is by no means a token of tolerance and acceptance. The superiority of Christians is interwoven into the imagery throughout the manuscript. Thereby frequently affirming its Christian audience of their place in the world of these chaotic times. It seems that the notion of convivencia is not so much an illustrated medieval reality, but rather a concept born from the desires of the modern world with regards to its own past.

1 Constable, Olivia Remie, 'Chess and Courtly Culture in Medieval Castile: The Libro de ajedrez of Alfonso X, el Sabio', in: Speculum 82.2 (2007), 331-332.
2 Robinson, Cynthia, 'Preliminary considerations on the illustrations of Qissat Bayād wa Riyād [Vat. Ar. Ris. 368]: checkmate with Alfonso X?', in Al-Andalus und Europa: zwischen Orient und Okzident, ed. Martina Meller-Wiener (Petersberg: Imhof, 2004), 290.
3 Adams, Jenny, Power play: the literature and politics of chess in the Late Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 55-56.
4 See Robinson 2004, 290 for further observations on the visual distinction between the two groups.

1 fol. 22r, Libro del ajedrez, dados y tablas, Manuscript T.I.6. Biblioteca Real del Monasterio de El Escorial. 
2 view on fol. 21v and 22r, Libro del ajedrez, dados y tablas, Manuscript T.I.6. Biblioteca Real del Monasterio de El Escorial.
3 fol. 71v, Libro del ajedrez, dados y tablas, Manuscript T.I.6. Biblioteca Real del Monasterio de El Escorial.

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