The Catholic Church has long been known for its extravagance and lavishly designed churches. The Gothic style of architecture that was prevalent in Europe from the 12th-16th centuries was beautiful, haunting, and intricate – and that style was translated into Gothic boxwood miniatures by some very talented artists.
The early 1500s saw the emergence of a new trend for the very wealthy in Northern Europe. Artists of extraordinary talent began using the otherwise ornamental boxwood plant to carve tiny religious scenes into prayer beads, some barely two inches across.
The carved scenes may be small, but they are packed with detail so minute that some parts can barely be seen with the naked eye. There are tiny thorns on the forehead of Christ, camels and other animals, and layers and layers of people and faces to build up the backgrounds. They tell stories from the Bible, scenes meant to remind the person viewing them of a specific lesson or moral.
These beautiful 16th-century wood carvings disappeared almost as quickly as they came into fashion. So who made these works of art? And what do we know about them today, using our modern technology?
Boxwood Was The Perfect Material
In the 16th century, boxwood was a somewhat under-utilized ornamental plant. However, Dutch and Belgian wood carvers discovered its perfect use: the wood is very dense, and the fine grain makes it ideal for carving tiny details.
Only 135 Known Boxwood Carvings Exist Today
Three museums have joined forces to put together a huge research project revolving around the 135 surviving boxwood miniatures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland all possess small portions of the overall collection, and they have teamed up to do research such as taking x-rays, doing micro CT scans, and taking detailed photographs of each piece.
Their goal is to understand as much as possible about these incredibly rare and beautiful works of art. Their findings are being presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, in an exhibit called "Small Wonders."
They Are Made Of Multiple Layers
As seen in this video, scientists at the Royal Ontario Museum took X-rays of the tiny carvings to figure out how they were put together. The round pieces were made using two boxwood spheres each, with one being used for the outer shell and the other being used for the layering inside. Each scene was created using four layers, with joints so tiny that they are not visible with the naked eye. The video breaks down the different pieces inside the sphere, showing the miniature details that one might usually miss.
The miniature above is carved in the P shape for Saint Philip, and it tells his story in the carvings.
They Were Only Made During A Short Period Of Time
All of the known boxwood carvings date to between 1500 and 1530. At that time in Europe, there was an emerging merchant class that felt it could afford such expensive trinkets. However, as the times continued to change, boxwood carvings soon fell out of fashion. The shift had a lot to do with the Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther. He argued against the way that money was so closely tied to getting into heaven in the Catholic Church and attempted to expose the Church's corruption. Pretty soon, expensive religious objects were no longer in style.