Black and white checkerboard floors first appear in European paintings in the 15th century, but the pattern’s origins lie long before that, in ancient artifacts from Iranian ceramic vessels to Roman paved floors. Here is a quick look at the history of checkerboard floors.
The checkerboard pattern dates back thousands of years. Staggered squares of light and dark was a visual motif on the pottery and textiles of many cultures, as in this Bronze Age ceramic vessel from western Iran that dates to about 1500 B.C. In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, a checkerboard represented a scribe’s tablet. Primitive board games might have used a checkerboard pattern, and it was also the basis of real-life military formations in ancient Rome.
So even though there’s not that much remaining evidence, it’s safe to say that soon after people started using stone and tiles to make floors, they started tiling those floors in checkerboard patterns. The pavement pictured above was the floor of a villa near Rome more than 2000 years ago. Historians believe it was the birthplace of the Emperor Vespasian, who was born in A.D. 9. More sophisticated and complex than a straightforward checkerboard, this floor was a luxurious variation on an already-familiar floor pattern.
But checkerboard floors were not only found in palaces and estates. In this c. 1661-63 painting by Pieter de Hoogh, you can see a black-and-white checkerboard pattern in one room and a more natural-colored terra cotta checkerboard in the entry hall.
However, while painters like Vermeer and de Hooch depicted many Dutch interiors with marble floors in black-and-white checkerboard, historians insist that this was indeed painterly convention, and not a reflection of reality. Scholars like C. Wilemijn Fock argue that the class of houses painted by these artists would rarely have had costly marble floors, and if they did, they would be in hallways instead of reception rooms. One question is whether the painters were simply using the checkerboard to emphasize perspective, or whether they were also elevating the interiors depicted, with the marble checkerboard floor standing as a symbol of luxury.
The checkerboard floor has also been an important symbol in Masonic iconography. To the Masons, the mixture of equal parts black and white in the pattern represents the duality of human life, a balance of good and evil. It also supposedly represents the floor of King Solomon’s Temple, though there is no archaeological evidence of what that actually looked like. Commentators have compared the Masonic checkerboard floor to the yin-yang of Chinese philosophy, a symbol of balance and harmony.