Checkmate

March has been designated as Women’s History Month.  Since history has been written, well, historically by males, women have frequently been excluded.  History as a serious attempt to describe “what actually happened” is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Yes, men (mostly) have been writing their views of what events meant from the days of the Bible and the Classics on.  A few females had made their way into the narratives, but reading history often makes it seem like males were the only people of consequence.  I was thinking about this the other day after I read a reference to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll.  Chess, I realized, is a game with a message.  Now I don’t often have time for games, but this felt important.

I’m not a good chess player, but I know that if you lose your queen you’ve got to be far better than I am at it to win the game.  In fact, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.  Now if you plan to come back with something like “using the bishop, knight, and rook you can surpass the power of the queen” it suggests two things.  One, you’re better than me at chess, and two, you’re missing the point.  The queen can move in both perpendicular and diagonal lines.  She can land on either color.  The range of her motion is limited only by the size of the board.  The bishop is limited to one color square only and the rook takes two moves to equal the queen’s diagonal skills.  

Think about the king—he moves one space at a time, and mostly only to avoid capture.  The queen is out there defending the realm.  Even as a kid learning to play chess, it was obvious that the queen did far more than a bishop limited to his ecclesiastical domain, or the rook with his brute force.  The knight makes a move the queen cannot, but his range in limited.  If a player retained only a queen the opponent’s king could still be captured, in my mind.  Chess should be a queen’s game.  

History is a way of looking at things.  Although it involves facts—and this is where the government narrative goes off the rails; the denial of facts is an autocrat’s game—it’s not the same as facts.  History is an interpretation of facts.  The fact is that male history of the world just could not have been possible without women.  It’s time not just to acknowledge it, but to celebrate it.

Glass Act

One of the main cultural Meccas of central New York state is the world-renowned Corning Museum of Glass. I recall visiting the museum three decades ago, as a child. Since then the museum has continued to expand and diversify its programs and displays. The Corning Museum of Glass is perhaps the greatest collection of art glass in the world. The history of glass is laid out chronologically, and along about the Middle Ages, religious glasswork comes into fashion. Some of the pieces were manufactured as intentionally religious artifacts. Others acquire a religious significance through less orthodox means.

Traditional religious glass

Near the end of the display is a piece by Gianni Toso, done around 1981. Entitled “Chess Set,” the glass sculpture features Roman Catholic pieces facing off against Jewish rabbinic pieces. The sculpture is intended to be comic as the expressions and the postures of the figures clearly indicate. Each piece bears some symbol of their faith: thuribles, lulavs, crosiers and Torah scrolls face off against one another, each side wearing unmistakable looks of superiority on their faces. Countless hours obviously went into the fabrication of such an intricate piece, and as with most art, it contains a serious message.

Toso's Chess Set

The figures here may be Jewish and Christian, but they could really be any religious traditions. The concept of putting them into a chess match is an inspired commentary on the constant struggle for superiority among religious traditions. In a world of differing religious outlooks, and where such outlooks are taken with deadly seriousness, no one is willing to relinquish religious superiority. The aggressors are difficult to discern since, as in life, any true believer must be a kind of missionary.

Toso's face-off

The medium of an artwork also makes a statement about its subject. Glass is a difficult medium to manipulate. Since it often must be very hot, the artist is familiar with the burns that accompany such intense heat. Glass produces a superior shine as an artistic medium, but it is also very fragile. Like the conflict presented on this chessboard, the religions behind it bear the limitations of the medium: they shine at times, yet they can also cause severe burns. And above all, they are fragile.