Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures

Exhibition Website

Feb 22 2017 - May 21 2017

The Cloisters

New York City, NY

Small in scale, yet teeming with life, miniature boxwood carvings have been a source of wonder since their creation in the Netherlands in the 16th century. On these intricately carved objects—some measuring a mere two inches (five centimeters) in diameter—the miracles and drama of the Bible unfold on a tiny stage. The execution of these prayer beads and diminutive altarpieces is as miraculous as the stories they tell. 

These tiny treasures will be featured in the exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniature, organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is a complete carved boxwood rosary made for King Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, before his notorious efforts to dissolve the marriage and his break from the Catholic Church.

Religious imagery on the exterior and interior of the objects indicates they were intended for meditative prayer. Among the images are scenes from the life of Jesus, saintly men and women, as well as events from Hebrew scripture embraced by Christians as part of their own narrative—from the Biblical King David to the Queen of Sheba.

The artists’ techniques for creating these delicate works have defied comprehension for centuries, but now, through collaborative study by conservators at The Met and the Art Gallery of Ontario, their secrets have at last been unraveled. The conservators’ findings will be presented in the exhibition through video documentation and the display of a disassembled prayer bead.

Beloved in gardens across the world today, boxwood is a slow-growing evergreen, native to the Mediterranean region. In the Middle Ages, it was considered to be linked by biblical authority with the Holy Land. Dense and fine-grained, it is ideally suited to precision carving. Early illustrated botanical texts elucidating the medieval understanding of this valuable wood will also be on view in the exhibition. Plantings of boxwood in the gardens of The Met Cloisters will deepen appreciation for the artists’ extraordinary work in transforming the material from plant specimen to precious possession.

Exhibition overview from museum website

  • Decorative Arts
  • European
  • 15th - 17th Century
  • Sacred
  • Carving

Exhibition Venues & Dates