This exhibition celebrates "small wonders" created at the dawn of the 16th century, when artists in the Netherlands transformed boxwood into something utterly new: tiny, intricate carvings, the likes of which had never been seen or imagined before. These creative geniuses took a material understood today merely as an ornamental plant and exploited its sculptural potential. In their hands, entire worlds emerged from dense and fine-grained wood.
Almost no documentary evidence about commerce in miniature boxwood carving has been uncovered. Yet over the course of more than 500 years these works of art have repeatedly been described as "ingenious," "artful," "exquisite," and "subtle." Even so, no adjective has ever been adequate to express the sense of wonder and amazement that the miniatures elicit.
Until recently, no study had been sufficient to unlock the secrets of the carvers who fashioned these objects. Through the collaboration of conservators in Toronto and New York, the genius of the artists is now fully understood and shared with the public for the first time.
The tiny treasures in this exhibition offer access to a sacred realm reached not by travel, but through the eyes of prayer and a sense of wonder. The original owners of these works of art had the luxury of cradling them in their own hands, of feeling the smooth surface of the wood, of fingering the sharp edges and tiny troughs of the dimpled surfaces. More than one bead is inscribed, "Let us raise our heart by hand to God of the heavens." It is all carefully calculated to soothe the soul on a primal level.
There is mind-bending sophistication at work here as well. Tiny Latin inscriptions quote the Bible, hymns associated with certain feast days, and Good Friday prayers about the "sweet wood" of the Cross. The words reinforced the meaning of the imagery for the devout, and yet they are a quiet feature that does not distract from the visual storytelling.
And what tales are told! There are men on horseback wielding spears, dogs and camels and chained monkeys, women fainting, saints enduring, devils tormenting, and angels singing. All required exceptional skill of the carver then; they demand close looking on our part now.
Through our work with fellow curators in Toronto and Amsterdam, many—but not all—of the histories and meanings underlying these miraculous miniatures have been uncovered. We invite you to explore the bustling, vibrant, and even noisy world of "small wonders," a place where miracles abound.
Rosary, 1500–1539. Netherlandish. Boxwood, L: 20 7/8 in. (52.8 cm). Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d'art, Paris. © Musée du Louvre, Photo: Craig Boyko/Ian Lefebvre