Kholmogory Sets

The town of Kholmogory, nearly 100 kilometers up the river from the port city of Arkhangel’sk, has been famous for its carvers. Craftsmen used the bones and tusks of walrus that had been brought to Arkhangel’sk, as well as fossilised mastodon ivory. During the 17th century, Kholmogory became one of the main centers of ivory carving in Russia, and the chess sets manufactured in the workshops there were of such distinct style that the name of the city became synomimous with this type of set, as the city of Dieppe in France gave its name to the type of ivory sets carved there. 

Typical example of a Kholmogory set below. It ususally represents the Russian army against an Eastern enemy, often Turkish. The Russian side is dressed all in white, and their costumes reflect ancient Roman clothing (first picture below). It has been suggested that this design occurred because Catherine II. (1729-96) outfitted her peronsal bodyguards to look like Roman guards. 

Source: Dean, Chess Masterpieces, 2010.

Each King is seated on a throne. Next to him, the Queen piece is usually a vizier – an advisor or prime minister. In this set, the Queen is a female, unusual for a Russian set. The knights and pawns of the Russian (white) side, all soldiers, wear Roman-style plumed helmets. The opposing side is Eastern, probably Turks, wearing red hats. The bishops are elephants. On the Russian side, each elephant is ridden by a mahout, a seated man wearing a turban; whereas on the Eastern side, the elephants are riderless but feature a red color inside one ear. 

As in other traditional sets of this period, the rook is a ladja – a ship with sails. On the Eastern side, each ship has only one full sail, with a tiny red pennant at the top. On the Russian side, each ladja has two masts, with both sails filled out by the wind. In Russian sets, the ladja traditionally occupied the place of the rook, and the elephant was in the bishop’s position.  

Source: Dean, Chess Masterpieces, 2010. 

Russian Christians vs. Muslims

Not differentiated by color – it is easy to distinguish the two sides. As in Indian sets, there are ships for rooks and elephants for bishops. The king is seated on a throne. Next to the king is his vizier, here represented by a Roman officer. The pawns are Roman and Muslim soldiers. The elephants of the Christian side have mahouts but there are non on the Muslim side. The pierced, ajouré bases of these pieces are attached with ivory pins. They are carved with Neoclassical acanthus-leaf tips, which helps to date this set. Late 18th, early 19th century.

King 8.6cm; Queen 10.2cm; Bishop 7.6cm; Knight 9.2cm; Rook 9.5cm. 

Source: Metropolitan Museum of 
Art, New York. USA.