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Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures

Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures

Exhibition Dates: February 22–May 21, 2017
Exhibition Location:
The Met Cloisters, Glass Gallery

Small in scale, yet teeming with detail, miniature boxwood carvings have been a source of wonder since their creation in the Netherlands in the 16th century. On these intricately carved objects—some measuring a mere two inches (five centimeters) in diameter—the miracles and drama of the Bible unfold on a tiny stage. Many of the works can be opened and closed: masterfully crafted hinges and clasps still function today, protecting the delicate three-dimensional sculptures within as they have done for centuries. The execution of these prayer beads and diminutive altarpieces seems almost as miraculous as the stories they tell and, in this first exhibition of its kind, the wizardry of the carvers who created these precious panoramas is revealed. Nearly 50 of these tiny treasures are featured in the exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, which opened February 22, at The Met Cloisters, the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval art and architecture.

The exhibition is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund.

It is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


Among the highlights of the exhibition is a complete carved boxwood rosary made for King Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, before his notorious efforts to dissolve the marriage and his break from the Catholic Church. Equally remarkable is a diminutive sculpture, in the shape of the letter P, that opens to reveal scenes of the legend of Saint Philip. This newly discovered treasure has recently been acquired by The Met. 

Used in prayer and meditation, such ingenious carvings offer access to a sacred realm. Layer upon layer, the miraculous tales unfold in astounding detail: stories of the life of Jesus; of saintly men and women; and events from Hebrew Scripture embraced by Christians as part of their own narrative—from the Biblical King David to the Queen of Sheba.

The artists’ techniques for creating these delicate works have defied comprehension for centuries, but now, through collaborative study by conservators at The Met and the Art Gallery of Ontario, their secrets have at last been unraveled. The conservators’ findings are presented in the exhibition through video documentation and the display of a disassembled prayer bead.

Beloved in gardens across the world today, boxwood is a slow-growing evergreen, native to the Mediterranean region. In the Middle Ages, it was linked by biblical authority to the Holy Land. Dense and fine-grained, it is ideally suited to precision carving. Early illustrated botanical texts elucidating the medieval understanding of this valuable wood are also on view in the exhibition. Plantings of boxwood in the gardens of The Met Cloisters will deepen appreciation for the artists’ extraordinary work in transforming the material from plant specimen to precious possessions.

Credits

The exhibition was organized by Alexandra Suda, Curator of European Art and the R. Fraser Elliott Chair of the Print & Drawing Council, Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO); Barbara Drake Boehm, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters; and Frits Scholten, Senior Curator of Sculpture at the Rijksmuseum. At The Met Cloisters, exhibition design is by Michael Langley, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Chelsea Amato, Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of The Met Design Department.

Ongoing scientific investigation into these objects—led by the AGO's Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts Lisa Ellis and The Met's Pete Dandridge, Conservator Emeritus, Department of Objects Conservation—has been assisted by scientists at: the Canadian Conservation Institute; Sustainable Archaeology Centre, University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario); Museum of Natural History (London, England); National Technical Systems (Belcamp, Maryland); and NASA John H. Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, Ohio).

Related Programs and Publication


Visitors wishing to experience the meditative magic of these prayer beads may reserve virtual reality headsets online for five-minute periods, Friday-Monday, February 24–27; Friday-Sunday, March 31-April 2; and Friday-Sunday, May 12-14. This limited-run offering takes place in The Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel (Gallery #2) and simulates travel through and around one of the "small wonders"—specifically the Last Judgment: Coronation of the Virgin bead. Produced by the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab (CFC Media Lab) and Seneca College School of Creative Art & Animation, the program represents an artistic and technical collaboration between Lisa Ellis of the AGO and interactive artist and designer Priam Givord.

Education programs will include Sunday afternoon gallery talks at 2 p.m. on April 23 and 30 by Caleb Leech, Managing Horticulturist at The Met Cloisters, and Pete Dandridge, Conservator Emeritus, respectively. These programs are free with Museum admission. 

On Sunday, March 26, at 1 p.m., acclaimed early-music ensemble The Boston Camerata will perform Treasures of Devotion: Spiritual Song in Northern Europe, 1500–1540. Tickets start at $40.

The exhibition is accompanied by a visitors’ guide published by the Art Gallery of Ontario (paperback, $19.95) and a catalogue published by the Rijksmuseum (hardcover, $55). Both books are available in The Met Store.

The exhibition is featured on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via #SmallWonders.

Before coming to The Met Cloisters, the exhibition was presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (November 5, 2016–January 22, 2017); and afterward it will be on view at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (June 17–September 17, 2017).

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Updated March 17, 2017


Image: Rosary, 1523–39. Netherlandish. Boxwood, L: 20 7/8 in. (52.8 cm). Musée du Louvre, Département des Objects d'art, Paris. © Musée du Louvre, Photo: Craig Boyko/Ian Lefebvre

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