What do you get royals who have everything? If you lived in the early 16th century in Europe, you get a Netherlandish woodcarver to create an amazing, theatrical scene inside a prayer bead or a letter of the alphabet. Fifty amazing treasures from Europe are currently on display at the Met’s Cloisters in the exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, closing May 21.
The artists worked on a microscopic scale and packed enough figures into a tiny space that you’d think you were seeing a replication of the finale to a grand opera – main characters, side stories, worlds within worlds.
If you owned one, you’d receive an exquisitely carved boxwood bead that opened to reveal a dramatic scene (usually Biblical), a protective case, and a leather-lined velvet pouch. If you had something like a boxwood altarpiece for your private chapel, the whole thing would fit into a custom-fitted custom case in case you wanted to transport it to your country castle.
Right as you enter the lower-level gallery at the Cloisters, you encounter the largest object in the show, a rosary with 12 immaculately carved multi-sided beads that was owned by Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. The theme was the Apostle’s Creed, with each bead telling the story of one of the first apostles – obviously received by the newlyweds before their historic split, which created the Church of England.
The stories behind the fascinating works cannot hold a match to the wonder of seeing these masterpieces in person. One of J.P. Morgan’s donations to the Cloisters – a single bead that reveals layers and layers of figurative sculptures – is always a highlight. It’s incredible that the Cloisters and its partners pulled together some of the best boxwood carvings in the world.
Take a look at the Met’s photo archive, where their high-res digital wizardry allows you to enlarge the photo on your screen to see all of the fine, intricate, tiny detail. Each one of the nearly 50 objects. Also, take a look at our Flickr album of the show.
Click on the link below to see the video that shows how these incredible small worlds were made: http://players.brightcove.net/911432378001/SkBUku4V_default/index.html?videoId=5249656214001.