Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Patron Saint of Chess players

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen(1500-1559)
Kurfürst Johann Friedrich von Sachsen (1503-1554) in der Gefangenschaft beim Schachspiel mit einem spanischen Bewacher /
Elector John Frederick of Saxony (1503-1554) in captivity playing chess with a Spanish guard
Oil on canvas
91 cm x 113 cm
Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig

Hans Mielich (1516-1573)
Duke Albert V of Bavaria and his consort Anna of Austria playing chess 1552
From BSB-Hss Cod.icon. 429
Kleinodienbuch der Herzogin Anna von Bayern - BSB Cod.icon. 429
München 1552 - 1555
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich

Chess is an ancient game. The first recorded mention of it being played in Europe is in Catalonia, Spain about AD 1000. It dates back a lot further than that.

St Teresa of Avila (1515 – October 4, 1582) has many things and activities of which she is patron. One of them is players of the game of chess. Chess was not permitted in her convents.

Outside men and women were players and it would appear that Anne of Austria was a particular devotee of the game. That is why she commissioned the above painting as the frontispiece for the book recording and memorialising her collection of jewels

The only reason for the particular patronage of St Teresa is a passage from one of her works, The Way of Perfection. See:

"1.Do not imagine that a great part of my work is done. No, I have only been 'placing the board' for the game. You asked me to teach you the foundation of prayer, my daughters, although God did not establish me on this foundation, for I am almost destitute of these virtues; yet I know no other.

But, be sure that any one who does not understand how to set the pieces in the game of chess will never be able to play well, nor, if he does not know how to give check, will he ever succeed in effecting checkmate. You may blame me for speaking of a game, for such things are neither played nor permitted in our convent.

This will show you what a mother God has given you, skilled even in such vanities as this ! Still, they say that sometimes the game is lawful, and how well it would be for us to play it, and if we practised it often, how quickly we should checkmate this divine King so that He neither could, nor would, move out of our check!

The Queen is His strongest opponent in the game, and all the other pieces help her. No queen can defeat Him so soon as can humility.' It drew Him from heaven into the Virgin's womb, and with it we can draw Him by a single hair into our souls. And doubtless, the greater our humility, the more entirely shall we possess Him, and the weaker it is, the more reluctantly will He dwell within us.

For I do not and I cannot understand how humility can exist without love, or love without humility, nor can either of these virtues be held in their perfection without great detachment from all created things.

2. Perhaps you ask me, my daughters, why I speak to you of these virtues: they are taught in plenty of books and you only wish me to write about contemplation. If you had asked me about meditation, I could have instructed you, and I advise every one to practise it even though they do not possess the virtues, for this is the first step to obtain them all : it is most essential for all Christians to begin this practice. No one, however desperate his case may be, ought to neglect it if God incites him to make use of it. I have written this elsewhere, as have other people who understand the subject, which, as God knows, I certainly do not.

Contemplation, however, is quite another thing, daughters. We fall into a mistake on this point, so that if any one thinks about his sins every day for a certain time (as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything but name), we at once call him a great contemplative, and expecl: him to possess the sublime virtues proper to such a state: he even thinks so himself; but he is quite wrong. He has not yet learnt how to 'place the board,' but thinks he can effect checkmate simply by knowing the names of the pieces—in this he is deceived ; this King will not let Himself be taken except by one who is entirely given up to Him.

St Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection Chapter 16, paragraphs 1 - 2; c. 1567

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