In this room of the museum, every visitor is bent at the knees. Many of us are squinting. The Met Cloisters is a place of grand gestures—magnificent tapestries, airy stone hallways, carpets of flowers, a view from a hill. But at this particular exhibit, we observers are taking time to see the small. The woman next to me accidentally bumps her nose against the glass case she is crouching to inspect. She giggles from embarrassment, but her eager curiosity isn’t out of place. She, like all of us, just wants a closer look.
Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, which runs at the Cloisters until May 21, features a collection of early sixteenth-century Netherlandish carvings: all fashioned from boxwood, and all impossibly tiny. There are prayer beads, altarpieces, triptychs, and sarcophagi. One rosary belonged to King Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Indeed, all the exhibited pieces were originally intended to aid the royal or wealthy in their devotions. Some are just two inches in diameter. All are simply displayed in low, glass cases in a quiet, brick-floored room of the Cloisters.
Boxwood is good for carving: smooth, fine-grained, dense, a lovely shade that ranges from butterscotch to chocolate. According to an old book displayed at the front of the exhibit, boxwood soaked in lye was an old beauty treatment, believed to cause blond hair. More to the point, boxwood has Biblical associations. Some say the cross was made of boxwood; some churches wave boxwood clippings on Palm Sunday. The wood is a fitting material for religious artifacts, which is what these small wonders are. They set Biblical scenes: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, Jonah and the whale, Abraham and Isaac. They show off saints and angels. Little coffins remind us of death; Latin inscriptions remind us of truth.