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

(Read the article on one page)

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."

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Map of sites and postulated migratory pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene.
Most people are now familiar with the traditional "Out of Africa" model: modern humans evolved in Africa and then dispersed across Asia and reached Australia in a single wave about 60,000 years ago. However, technological advances in DNA analysis and other fossil identification techniques, as well as an emphasis on multidisciplinary research

Ancient Technology

The School of Athens
Much of modern science was known in ancient times. Robots and computers were a reality long before the 1940´s. The early Bronze Age inhabitants of the Levant used computers in stone, the Greeks in the 2nd century BC invented an analogue computer known as the Antikythera mechanism. An ancient Hindu book gives detailed instructions for the construction of an aircraft –ages before the Wright brothers. Where did such knowledge come from?

Ancient Places

Smuts house
The farmstead of General Jan Smuts on the outskirts of Pretoria, is reputed to be one of the most haunted private homes in the country, according to Mr Mark Rose-Christie, raconteur and social scientist, who regularly takes brave visitors on a tour of haunted sites on his mystery ghost bus.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article