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The Chessboard

The chess game has ancient origins. These could be found in India, because over there was the chaturanga, a set of rules that could have anticipated the current ones. It may also derive from the old Chinese game of the xianggi. Beyond the hypotheses about its derivation, it is certain that the chess spread across Europe from Arabia and before from Persia. A testimony of this comes from the term shāh, that derives from the Persian languageIn Europe the game spread thanks to the Arab domination in Sicily, and then through the mediation of the Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. A consolidated tradition states the Knights Templar were the most important supporters of this contamination. Not by chance their coat of arms, the Baucent, reproduces the white-black alternation that is typical of the chessboard. 

In any case, the symbolism of the Chessboard was disseminated in a contagious manner in all Europe. During the Medieval period, it was used as a decorative element inside religious buildings. Some important evidences are at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan and the Genoa Cathedral.

The symbolism of the Chessboard in the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio in Milan

The symbolism of the Chessboard 

Since its primitive meaning, the Chessboard indicates dualism, based on the concept of the cosmic conflict. The Hinduism is the most ancient religion of the world; it conciliates the doctrine of the opposites. For an Indian man God is the whole and a part of the whole, it is male and female, it is creation and disruption. It is evident that it is exactly what the Chessboard is. The white and black boxes are opposite and alternate, but no one can exist without the other. The duality of the opposites composes the whole, it is the essence of God.

In China the phylosophy of the opposites (in the Confucianism and the Taoism) can be expressed, with similar facets, through the yin (black) and yang (white) doctrine. Yin and yang are the shadow and the bright part of the same hill; that means, they are the opposites that complement each other, as it is evident from the linked symbolism. Although opposites, no one could exist without the other: overall, they express the idea of a cyclicity inherent in natural laws. 

The Chessboard from the Classical to the Middle Age

In the ancient Greece, the doctrine of the opposites by Heraclitus is the one that mostly embodies the symbolist concept linked to the Chessboard. According to the philosopher, the World would be governed by a secret law which resides in the coexistence of the opposites. As such, they fight each other but at the same time they are inseparable. In fact, one without the other cannot exist.

The Chessboard appears as the primordial juxtaposition between the darkness and the light, the good and the evil. It is in this sense that the spread of the chess during the Middle Age can be interpreted. For Christians, there is an eternal fight between Christ and the devil. Nonetheless, it will end with the victory of the God’s Son during his last coming, the Parousia: “portae inferi non praevalebunt”.

The Chessboard at the Genoa Cathedral of St. Lawrence

A Hindu legend 

A famous Hindu legend [1] reveals another symbolist level. This expresses the significance of the sacrifice and the separation. An Indian king won a bloody battle, although he sacrificed his son. For a long time he was not able to be consoled, until a Hindu minister, called Lahur Sessa, tapped on his door. He introduced the chess game to the king; thus, by doing the game so much, the king convinced himself that he could not otherwise than sacrifice his son.

Finally calm, the king said to the minister to ask him everything and he would have granted it. Lahur Sessa simply asked a grain for his first chessboard box, two for the second, four for the third, and so on. The king smiled at the bizarre request, convinced it was needed less wheat. Actually, he realized that 800 years of harvest would not have been enough to satisfy the request [2].

The mystery of the sacrifice

It is interesting to notice the frequency of the sacrifice theme. The Indian king was forced to sacrifice his son for the victory. Moreover, although initially it would seem something trivial, his reward corresponds to the eternity (symbolically a long time, like 800 years). The legend contains the real essence of the chess. Nobody can win a match without sacrifying some pawn.

Translating the Hindu story to the Christian reality and to the medieval symbolism of the Chessboard, there are numerous similarities. Even in this case the king (God) is forced to sacrifice his son (Jesus Christ) to donate an eternal reward to the humanity. It is Christ himself who well explicates the concept:

“Truly,truly,I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” [3].

Curiously, the sacrifice is linked to a grain.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)


[1] Malba Tahan, The man who counted.

[2] Lahur Sessa asked 264 – 1 grains, since the chessboard is composed by 64 boxes, and it is a very high number.

[3] Gv 12,20 and following.

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