These Incredibly Detailed Wood Sculptures From The 16th-Century Were Somehow Carved By Hand

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

    Boxwood Was The Perfect Material
    Photo: John Bern / Youtube

    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. 

  • The Large Beads Formed The End Of A Rosary

    The Large Beads Formed The End Of A Rosary
    Photo: Author Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use

    Rosary beads became very popular in the 15th century. The rosary is a 15-part prayer, and strings of beads help Catholics keep track of the parts of the prayer as they work their way through it. The more intricate strings of rosary beads included a set of smaller solid beads with the most intricate bead at the end. The most elaborate and expensive beads were the ones that opened up to display religiously significant scenes like the one pictured above. 

  • They Not Only Came From A Specific Region, But They Also Came From A Specific Person

    They Not Only Came From A Specific Region, But They Also Came From A Specific Person
    Photo: Netherlandish / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    Scientists already knew that many of the intricate carvings came from the region of Flanders in Belgium, and some came from the nearby Netherlands. One early theory was that they originated from maybe four to six different workshops around the area. However, Alexandra Suda, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, has suggested a different explanation. She believes that the level of consistency combined with the sheer intricacy of the work points to one person, one artist, who maybe had a few apprentices or assistants helping them.

    That would also explain why none of the carvings have been dated after 1530 – the artist most likely passed away.