How Were They Made? Unlocking the 500-Year-Old Secret to Gothic Miniature Boxwood Carvings

How Were They Made? Unlocking the 500-Year-Old Secret to Gothic Miniature Boxwood Carvings

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A mystery that lasted for nearly five centuries was finally solved with the assistance of modern technology. The magnificent 16th century miniature boxwood carvings that had been puzzling viewers and experts alike with their depictions of heaven, hell, and life on Earth, sculpted in incredible detail, were one of art history’s greatest mysteries…but not anymore. 

An Introduction to the Magnificent Gothic Boxwood Carvings

If you’re into religious art and its evolution throughout the centuries, then these small carved boxwood miniature sculptures which you can literally enclose inside your palm, are definitely going to impress you. Their iconography gets inspiration from biblical scenes (with extensive depictions of the Crucifixion).  There are clear influences from contemporary literature as well. The objects' tense and unsuitable impact, being both tiny and extensive simultaneously, are especially convenient for depictions of Heaven and Hell. It is thought that the entire body of work was created during a relatively short period of time, between 1500 and 1530, somewhere in Flanders or the Netherlands. This makes perfect sense if one takes into account how during the same period of time, there was an impressive rise of a new merchant social class in Europe that created a market demand for high-quality portable religious carvings.

Rosary bead with carvings of the Vision of St Hubert and St George and the Dragon, Boxwood, Sculpture, Miniature.

Rosary bead with carvings of the Vision of St Hubert and St George and the Dragon , Boxwood, Sculpture, Miniature. ( Fair Use )

However, art historians suggest that these boxwood carvings were intended as luxury items and status symbols exclusively made for members of the European elite. In corroboration of this, Henry VIII of England and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Albert V of Bavaria, are known to have owned such pieces. However, soon the Reformation began and a lot of church-related accessories went out of fashion, including the miniature boxwood pieces. An incredible art and its creator(s) would be lost for centuries.

A boxwood and silver rosary bead juxtaposes images of life and death. The boxwood bead opens to reveal carvings of Death appearing unannounced at a meal beneath an image of the Last Judgment in the upper hemisphere. The Latin inscription reads, "Stay awake, for you do now know at which house your Lord will come" (Matthew 24:42). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A boxwood and silver rosary bead juxtaposes images of life and death. The boxwood bead opens to reveal carvings of Death appearing unannounced at a meal beneath an image of the Last Judgment in the upper hemisphere. The Latin inscription reads, "Stay awake, for you do now know at which house your Lord will come" (Matthew 24:42). Metropolitan Museum of Art. ( Public Domain )

Boxwood Carvings, A Unique Art Form with Incomparable Design

With less than 140 surviving examples around the world today, these gorgeous boxwood carvings were puzzling historians and other experts for nearly five centuries. The mystery surrounding the creation of these unique religious pieces had mainly to do with their incredible art and design. Apparently, they were made by boxwood - which is particularly attractive to miniature wood carvers as it has an evenly soft and tactile surface when polished. The challenge of creating such a marvelous and detailed art on an extremely tiny scale, is based on the fact that these pieces would have been extremely hard to safely hold in place during their shaping and cutting.

The level of detail and excellence implies the use of magnification, probably with the same instruments used by modern jewelers in order to assess diamonds. Highlighting the level of detail mastered, decorated art historian Eve Kahn wrote at New York Times ,

“The works can be so rich that individual feathers are visible on angel wings, and dragon skins are textured with thick scales. Crumbling shacks are shown with shingles missing from their gabled roofs. Saints’ robes and soldiers’ uniforms are trimmed with nearly microscopic representations of buttons and embroidery, as well as jewelry and rosary beads."

Miniature altar-piece; boxwood; upper section is a triptych with carvings of ogee arches, Crucifixion in the center, and numerous figures. Left wing: Bearing of the Cross with Sacrifice of Isaac in distance; right: Resurrection, with Entombment and other scenes in background; second stage is a smaller triptych with Agony in the Garden and, on the leaves, the Betrayal; this rests on semi-circular arcade with the Last Supper; each side has a carving of a seated lion grasping a shield; rectangular base with wrestling children filling the angles; whole rests on two recumbent lions chained to posts; between them is shield with a helmet, mantlings and crest.

Miniature altar-piece; boxwood; upper section is a triptych with carvings of ogee arches, Crucifixion in the center, and numerous figures. Left wing: Bearing of the Cross with Sacrifice of Isaac in distance; right: Resurrection, with Entombment and other scenes in background; second stage is a smaller triptych with Agony in the Garden and, on the leaves, the Betrayal; this rests on semi-circular arcade with the Last Supper; each side has a carving of a seated lion grasping a shield; rectangular base with wrestling children filling the angles; whole rests on two recumbent lions chained to posts; between them is shield with a helmet, mantlings and crest. (British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

An even more impressed and excited Alexandra Suda, a curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, Canada told CNN , “They're objects that defy modern comprehension. As small as they are, they represent the limitless potential for human creativity in a way that is universal."

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