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Solving the mystery of Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures

October 25th, 2016

Netherlandish, Prayer Bead, 1500–1530. Boxwood with metal fittings, overall closed: 58.8 × 61.1 mm (5.9 × 6.1 cm) overall open: 56.5 × 56.5 × 116.3 mm (5.6 × 5.6 × 11.6 cm). The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario.

Netherlandish, Prayer Bead, 1500–1530. Boxwood with metal fittings, overall closed: 58.8 × 61.1 mm (5.9 × 6.1 cm) overall open: 56.5 × 56.5 × 116.3 mm (5.6 × 5.6 × 11.6 cm). The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario.

In the early 1500s, carvers in Northern Europe created exquisite boxwood prayer beads, rosaries and miniature altarpieces that have inspired and confounded people for generations.     Anyone who has looked at one of these beautiful objects wonders: how were these tiny masterpieces created?

A team of experts decided to find out. The AGO’s Sasha Suda, Curator of European Art & R. Fraser Elliott Chair, Print & Drawing Council, and Lisa Ellis, Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, were joined by colleagues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rijksmuseum, and scientists at the Canadian Conservation Institute, University of Western Ontario’s Department of Sustainable Archaeology, London’s Museum of Natural History (UK) and NASA (yes, that NASA!).

After more than four years of research that included the use of cutting-edge technology, we now have new insight into these awe-inspiring works of art. Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, opening on November 5, is a ground-breaking exhibition that helps answer the question – how did they do that?

How did this exhibition come to be?  Sasha Suda and Lisa Ellis explain.

Sasha: Sometimes I spend time in the galleries undercover, pretending to be a visitor so that I can see what interests them most. I was surprised to find out that the gothic boxwood miniatures in our first floor galleries are a hit! Everyone who walks by stops to take a look. After a few moments, almost every person asks the same question: “How were these made?”

As a curator, I want to be able to answer the questions posed by our visitors. In this case, I couldn’t! The technique used to make these works of art was just too complex and hidden for me to explain it without more information.

Lisa: When Sasha came to me, I thought “this is going to be an easy question to answer.” I was wrong. Sasha and I embarked on what ended up being a five-year journey into the worlds of physics, archaeology, 3D imaging software, and gaming computers.

Using 3D models, I was able to take apart each object virtually so that I could see how its pieces fit together and therefore how it was made. Astonishing secrets were revealed, including in one case a hidden portrait of a king and a queen that no one had seen for over 500 years.

Sasha: The fact that these objects were made by hand 500 years ago is inspiring. Now that we know how they were made, we have even more questions about the people who made them. What motivated the artists to go to this extreme? Will we ever know who they are?

There was a time when we worried that unlocking the secrets of these objects would make them less magical, but if anything it makes them even more wonderful today.

Come and see these amazing objects for yourself! Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, opens to the public on Saturday November 5 and is included in general admission. AGO Members see it first, with special previews November 2 – 4.

Want to learn more? On Sunday October 30, the AGO will host international scholars for a one-day research symposium entitled Unlocking the Mysteries of Gothic Boxwood Carving. Hear directly from the curators, conservators and various scientists and technical researchers who helped to identify the methods of manufacturing these wonderful works of art. Reserve your seat here.

Stay tuned for more stories about the tiny carved mysteries over the weeks to come! 

boxwood

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