Nose to the Glass

Gothic Boxwood Miniatures at The Met Cloisters
Rosary of Floris van Egmond and Margaretha van Glymes

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.

The overall effect is that of a complete world suspended and shrunk.

What’s most miraculous about the miniatures—what compels us all to bend and squint and refocus our eyes—is that they are so very small. The carver has rendered tendrils of beard (the size of dandelion wisps), tree leaves (no larger than pencil shavings), thread-thick lines of mortar between bricks, couscous-small horses and sheep. He has detailed robes, sandals, and facial expressions onto figures smaller than an infant’s fingernail. One bead, depicting the Gospel scene in which Jesus overturns the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, includes a tiny cage full of doves. When the bead moves, the doves flit. The miniatures also feature lines of hymns and prayers, etched with toothpick precision. They would be completely adorable, if they weren’t also undeniably masterful.

What’s even more impressive is that these creations are panoramas with perspective. Each piece has two parts: an outer shell, and an interior with inset reliefs, revealed when a bead is cracked open or little altar doors are swung wide. Tiny objects populate both foreground and background. Planes were carved separately like theatrical flats, then layered and joined with miniscule pegs. Increasingly smaller disks create depth. The overall effect is that of a complete world suspended and shrunk. One feels the characters will leap back into motion as soon as the object is fastened shut.

Prayer Bead with the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion

Nobody knows whether these miniatures were the output of a single artist or of a team. Experts note tiny differences in carving style, technique, and quality. Are these signs of more than one craftsman, or a single artist with developing taste? What’s certain is that the work was painstaking. A set of contemporaneous miniature tools is on display: chisels the thickness of almond slivers, a pair of cracked, delicate pince-nez. In 1530, output halted, perhaps because of the artist’s death, perhaps because of the Reformation.

The miniatures represent a tactile spirituality, an artisan’s skill meant to awe queens into closeness with God. Some of the beads were designed to hold perfume or to be worn from belts. Some come with cases of silver or cloth. These miniatures were meant to be carried, touched, used.

Don’t touch the art. The refrain has been drilled into us since childhood. Our oily, clumsy hands will only make a mess. But looking at these miniatures, one desperately wishes the glass were gone—that we, like kings, could once again hold these worlds in our palms.

 

Small Wonders will run at the Met Cloisters through May 21, 2017. The exhibit is organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Information for this article came from online exhibit notes and Fabricating Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Boxwood Miniatures by Pete Dandridge and Lisa Ellis. 

Published in the June 2, 2017 issue: 
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Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor of Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

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