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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Fabricating Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Boxwood Miniatures

In the sixteenth century, residents of the Low Countries were exposed to a wide array of artistic productions, including textiles and prints (29.48.2) as well as the refined interior architectural spaces of their cathedrals and the elaborately painted and sculpted altarpieces contained therein. The artist(s) responsible for creating the boxwood prayer beads, diptychs, triptychs, letters, and sarcophagi considered here was similarly conversant with the iconography of the time but miniaturized their scale to create an intimate experience for religious devotees, whether royalty or other wealthy patrons. The patron’s first response upon opening the prayer beads (17.190.475) and miniature altarpieces (17.190.453) must have been similar to that of contemporary viewers: a sense of wonder, soon followed by a keen desire to understand how and by whom these extraordinary and delightful objects were made (17.190.475, detail). To date, researchers have been unable to reach a consensus about the identity of the artist(s) or workshop(s) that produced them. To build a profile of the responsible artist(s) and his methodology, we have turned to the surviving corpus of objects, around 130 in number, to the better-known practices of their colleagues, and to advanced techniques of visual analyses like Micro Computational Tomography (MCT).

The joinery used in the fabrication of the boxwood objects broadly aligns with those used in the creation of contemporaneous, large-scale altarpieces, including: an additive approach to the building up of reliefs; the joining together of multiple planes of figures and decorative elements; and the setting in of discretely carved elements and more minimally sized flourishes. This shared technical sensibility suggests the creator of the miniature boxwood objects had a grounding in established workshop traditions. Not surprisingly, in systematically cataloguing the tools used by the carver, they mirror in shape and function the saws, braces, augers, gimlets, files, flat chisels, U-shaped gouges, and V-shaped gravers found in a wood carver’s studio of the period, excepting only their size (56.70a–c, detail). Although no such set of miniature tools survives from this period, those belonging to the seventeenth-century Italian miniature carver Ottaviano Jannella (AGO 29339) give some idea of their scale and form (AGO 29339, detail).

The relatively short time frame, 1500–1530, designated for the fabrication of the boxwood prayer beads (17.190.328; 17.190.457a,b; 17.190.458a,b; 17.190.473a; 17.190.473b; 17.190.474a; 17.190.474b; 17.190.475), diptychs (17.190.476), triptychs (17.190.453), sarcophagi (1985.136), medallions (17.190.471), and letters (2017.10a,b) under discussion suggests all could be the output of a single artist. The cessation of the works’ production in or around 1530 may be attributed to the death of the sculptor, or the advent of the Reformation.

The ideal medium for such intricate carving is boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, a fine-grained, dense hardwood exhibiting little variation in its working properties either across or with the grain. The surfaces of the miniature boxwood carvings are almost always unadorned, and the absence of polychromy would have presented their carver the supplemental challenge of imparting sufficient detail to each figure to fully enliven the narrative (17.190.474a, detail).

It has always been presumed that to attain the extraordinary detail presented in these miniature sculptures, the sculptor must have used magnification. Intriguingly, a pair of magnifying glasses associated with the Jannella assemblage (AGO 29339, detail) are similar in style to those used by a figure depicted in the boxwood reliefs (17.190.474a, detail).

The prayer beads were unlike anything previously created and were designed to be carried, perhaps suspended from a belt at the end of a rosary, and to be handled during prayer. Each bead was built up from two principal parts—an exterior shell (17.190.474a, detailAGO 29458) and inset reliefs (17.190.475). The shape of the exteriors is best described as two half-spheres connected by a thick girdle and integral hinges. The dome-shaped shells served both as a stage set and as a means of protection for the delicate carvings set into their interiors. By segregating shell and relief, the maker(s) had unfettered access to sculpt both the complex, openwork patterns on the exteriors and the minuscule narrative scenes.

The geometric patterns on the prayer beads’ exterior shells are reminiscent of the openwork tracery often found on the predellas used to support large altarpieces and in the glazing and screens of Gothic architecture. Diagnostic tool marks suggest that the pole lathe was used to cut out the interiors of the prayer beads’ shells and to refine their domed profile and associated molding (17.190.475, detail). The intricate openwork patterns were then laid out on the surface (AGO 29361, detail) and cut in with drills, gouges, skewed chisels, parting tools, and scrapers. The resultant furrowed surfaces provided sufficient tooth for the objects to be held securely within the hand, and their lightness and seeming fragility might well have alerted the user to the delicacy of the reliefs within.

The least complex of the bead’s interior reliefs are carved from a single shallow disk either in low relief or with an occasional figure freed from the background. More often, the reliefs are complex narratives with figures sculpted fully in the round and inhabiting both near and distant naturalistic and architectural spaces (17.190.473b). Such multicomponent dioramas were executed using a succession of increasingly smaller, individually carved layers or disks (17.190.473b, detail). What the artist(s) used as a model is unclear. Certainly, there were numerous prints that might have served as inspiration (29.48.2). Whatever the source, the composition would have been segregated into successive zones to then be carved on the disks. These distinct layers were often offset, creating an oblique cone with its apex higher than its center (17.190.475), or aligned along a horizontal axis with a more traditional vanishing point (AGO 29360). Exploding the scene into individual planes allowed the artist to carve the disks from the front, back, and side to fully model in three dimensions many of the horsemen and figures. The scenes are often further embellished by inserting separately carved elements like soldiers’ spears and flags, as well as even finer details like the finial at the top of a soldier’s helmet (17.190.474a, detail). Once complete, the multiple disks were joined to one another and secured within their shells by diminutive pegs.

The fifteen triptychs, diptychs, tabernacles, and altarpieces that survive preserve in their making the additive methodology and range of complexity seen in the prayer beads. The Metropolitan Museum’s diptych (17.190.476) serves as a baseline, since each wing is simply a single piece of wood hinged to the other. The reliefs are presented in a predominantly horizontal plane, with the generous space between the bottom of the rounded arch and the top of the figures enabling the artist to carve at a sufficiently oblique angle to model the foreground figures in three dimensions.

The triptychs, tabernacles, and altarpieces are characteristically segregated into four principal components: interior reliefs, architectural housings, wings, and predellas or bases (AGO 34208). The reliefs, like those in the beads, were generally built up and carved from multiple pieces overlaid onto one another, with their outer dimensions cut back to allow the ensemble’s placement within its niche. The Crucifixion relief in the Met’s triptych (17.190.453, detail) implements the multislab approach overlaying three plaques of wood of varying heights to create the immersive drama of the scene—the first portrays the three horsemen in the foreground; the second presents the middle ground, including the kneeling figures of Mary Magdalene and her attendants bracketed by another two horsemen; and the last shows the figures of Christ and the thieves on their crosses, the triangular grouping of figures at the base of the central cross, two further horsemen, and a standing figure holding a fork on the right side in the background (17.190.453, MCT scan). An interior system of blind interlocking mortise-and-tenon joins were cut into the slabs’ bases to allow the different plaques to be assembled and disassembled (17.190.453, MCT scan), giving the carver the ability to constantly evaluate the composition and assure its sculptural continuity.

Not surprisingly, multiple approaches were taken to create the housings for the reliefs. The Art Gallery of Toronto’s triptych (AGO 34208, detail) is relatively straightforward. The woodworker started with a rectangular block spanning the width and depth of the central case and extending in height up to the base supporting the central spire. The interior was drilled and/or carved out to form a roughly concave, domed space. The latter was then detailed with Gothic windows and ribbed vaulting emulating contemporary church interiors. The openwork screen, the molding across the top, and the triangular base for the central finial constitute a single piece set into a recess in the case; the finial and pinnacles are all separate elements as well.

The process varies slightly in the New York triptych (17.190.453). Here, a full-sized architectural frame was shaped from a single block of wood to include all the molding, trefoil arches, openwork screens, and broken openwork moldings along the crest. It is secured to the front of the hollowed-out block into which the relief is set with glue and internal pins. The square pinnacles and central finials on the crest of the triptych are, like the Toronto object, composite elements joined to their supports with integral tenons.

Similar to the prayer beads, the wings for the triptychs, altarpieces, and tabernacles would have been cut and sized at the start of the design phase. The simplest expression is shared by the AGO (AGO 34208) and Met (17.190.453) triptychs, whose wings were fabricated from a single piece of thin boxwood with shallow reliefs carved into their interiors. Space was reserved across the bottom for an inscription or a frieze that often continued along the base of the architectural framework under the central relief.

A base or predella was required for the triptychs, altarpieces, tabernacles, and monstrances. The bases could become very ornate and might include the suggestion of a reliquary compartment, an elaborate architectural construct, and crouching and seated lions. What is striking about all of the examples is that they give the appearance of having been made by an apprentice or assistant who was given a box of remaindered pieces of wood and a rough design and then left to his own devices. Odd-sized bits of wood have been discovered inserted in unusual places, with very basic forms often assembled from multiple pieces. The surfaces and details are often roughly carved and bear a preponderance of incised lines from a marking gauge or compass due to over-exuberance or the mismarking of pieces (17.190.453, detail).

While we know little about the workshop structure that supported the production of the boxwood prayer beads and triptychs, it appears that a single sculptor was responsible for the preponderance of these Netherlandish objects created in the first decades of the sixteenth century. The disparity between the finesse of the reliefs’ carving and joinery and the coarseness of some of the woodworking exhibited on the triptychs’ architectural frameworks suggests different hands either within a single workshop or across collaborating studios in a model similar to that employed in the production of large-scale altarpieces. This qualitative variation is not reflected in the turning and carving of the beads’ shells and their interior reliefs; however, the skill sets required are easily segregated and reinforce the idea of a separate hand or studio for each component. What is more intriguing is the subtle variation in style, technique, and quality in the sculpting of the reliefs. Are they the natural evolution of a maturing artist, a possible reaction to stylistic changes, or a response to the specific request of a discerning patron?