Moritz Retzsch, like many artists of his generation, was fascinated by Faust. Die Schachspieler, while not an explicitly Faustian episode, is full of Faustian flavour in its rich allegory of the Devil's battle for a man's soul. The position of the chessboard, to take just one element, placed squarely on the lid of a sarcophagus, leaves the spectator in no doubt as to this particular endgame.
The two principal protagonists in this drama face one another across the board. Satan, resplendent in his green cape and a red-feathered cap, glowers across at Man, whose soft, classical features are buried deep in troubled contemplation. Man is watched over by his guardian angel. Her dark expression, however, hints that no intervention is planned and Satan's seat - his throne - boasts the sinister decoration of a fierce, snarling lion's head, its feet resting on the classic momento mori, a grizzly skull, indicating the likely outcome of the match.
The chess pieces themselves represent the struggle. The black King's modelling echoes the mantle and cap of his master, urging his soldiers onwards. The figure immediately in front of the King tramples on a cross, alluding to Satan's avowed aim of destroying Christ's church, while the griffin-headed monster to his left raises his left arm as though in peace meanwhile hiding a vicious stiletto behind his back. Such terrible intent is repeated throughout the black pieces, who advance, seemingly without respite, on the virtuous white set. This advance is rhymed by the approach of the spider towards Man which, with its power to spin a fatal web, symbolises Satan's mission to ensare the believer.
Offering some insight into the brooding personality of Retzsch is Mrs Jameson, an English commentator who, upon visiting the artist's studio in Dresden in 1833, wrote: 'I saw in Retzsch's atelier...the head of an angel smiling. He said he was often pursued by dark, haunted by melancholy forebodings, desponding over himself and his art "and he resolved to create an angel for himself, which would smile upon him out of heaven"' (Mrs Jameson, Visits and Sketches at Home and Abroad, London, 1834, p. 125).