The painting is from the church of Täby, which was constructed in 1480 C.E. Above the pair is a ribbon that has since faded but once read; “Jak spelar tik matt”, “I checkmate thee”.
The painting depicting a man playing chess with death was a popular trope of that time period. There are many different possible meanings that these paintings could have.
Albertus Pictor, known as Albert the Painter, was a German-born painter (Albrekht Ymmenhusen). Pictor settled in medieval Sweden and is unique in the quantity and quality of his work. Most of his work was church murals which could be quite large. He painted some 36 different churches. He was an innovative artist with his techniques and styling different motifs. In addition, Pictor was also an organist and embroiderer.
“Death is the wish of some, the relief of many, and the end of all” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Notably, the mural inspired legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman to create the masterpiece, The Seventh Seal in 1957. The Seventh Seal is a Swedish historical fantasy and cinema classic, listed in the “Top 100 Essential Films of All Time” by the National Society of Film Critics. It features numerous memento mori of the time period. The film is set during the Black Death – a devastating bubonic plague pandemic from 1346 to 1353. One of the characters in the movie is Albertus Pictor. The film also has had an influence on pop culture and Sweden held celebrations for the quincentenary of Pictor’s death in 2009.
“My whole life has been nothing but futile wandering, a great deal of words without meaning. I say that without bitterness or self-reproach, because I know it’s the same for most men.”
― Antonius Block, The Seventh Seal
We can move around variables of our lives, like chess pierces, to struggle as we might, to delay death and extend our life – but ultimately, death will always win.
P.S The word “checkmate” derives from the Persian phrase “Shah Met” which means “the King is Dead”
Players would announce “Shāh” when the king was in check. “Māt” (مات) is a Persian adjective for “at a loss”, “helpless”, or “defeated”. So the king is in ‘mate’ when he is ambushed, at a loss, helpless, defeated, or abandoned to his fate. (source)
***A memento mori is a reminder of death. It is a key practice in Stoicism but is not unique to it. It can be a simple visual reminder or quote or a more serious mediation on death. Stoics use it to remind themselves of how short and fragile life is and therefore how much we have to be grateful for, to live virtuous lives, and not to waste our time.
In this series, each Monday, I will post a memento mori from various sources, either from the primary Stoic texts themselves or other sources. You can read my other Memento Mori entires here.