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Like a prayer bead

April 9th, 2018

Close up of a small wooden carved bead, closed.

Prayer Bead with depictions of Saint James and Saint George, c. 1500-1530 (closed view). Boxwood, Overall: 4 × 3.5 × 4.3 cm. Purchase, with funds from the sale of deaccessioned European art work and the Thomson European Collection Acquisition Fund, 2017. © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario.

Different pieces come into the AGO Collection in different ways and often with astonishing stories. We sat down with AGO curator Sasha Suda and conservator Lisa Ellis, who together curated the popular AGO exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, to hear about how our latest treasure – a miniature prayer bead – came to the Gallery.

After a successful run at the AGO and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures opened at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last July. Soon after, Suda and Ellis caught wind of an unknown boxwood prayer bead in a small auction house in northern France. Despite their efforts to keep the sale quiet, word spread quickly and the auction ended up being very competitive. Determined, the AGO was able to secure the prayer bead for its collection.

Close up of a small wooden bead, open, depicting intricately carved scenes of Saint James and Saint George

Prayer Bead with depictions of Saint James and Saint George, c. 1500-1530 (open view). Boxwood, Overall: 4 × 3.5 × 4.3 cm. Purchase, with funds from the sale of deaccessioned European art work and the Thomson European Collection Acquisition Fund, 2017. © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario.

The images inside the bead show St. James the pilgrim resting on a rock, while the prayer bead’s original owner prays to him and St. George slays the dragon. Our sixteenth prayer bead is now on view alongside its counterparts in the Thomson European Collection Gallery.

The object’s history turned out to be almost as wonderful as the piece itself. The young woman who consigned it explained in a letter: when she was a young girl, her grandmother played shopkeeper with her using this “little box” among other collectables “for sale.” Interestingly, her grandmother didn’t consider the bead one of her collection’s “treasures” and when she passed away it narrowly escaped the estate’s discard pile. Her granddaughter’s nostalgia for the shopkeeper game motivated her to keep the bead and to ask a local auctioneer about it. And that’s how the prayer bead wound up at auction, eventually finding its way to the AGO.

The AGO has become the centre for study of these amazing prayer beads since launching an online database in 2016 and introducing research that culminated in the award-winning Small Wonders exhibition, which opened here at the AGO in 2016. The exhibition and its various publications won numerous awards including Outstanding Digital Publication from the Association of Art Museum Curators and Outstanding Achievement in Conservation from the Canadian Museums Association. It also won an award from The New York Times for one of the Best Art Books of 2017, the catalogue Small Wonders: Late-Gothic Boxwood Microcarving from the Low Countries.

And the virtual reality experience presented here, which allowed viewers to walk through and around a prayer bead in its entirety, has also enthralled users around the world ­– from the Met Cloisters in New York all the way to Sydney, Australia and beyond!

And this month, it’s back in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Film Festival so you can see inside a 500-year old prayer bead. And be sure to check out the boxwood miniatures currently on display at the AGO on Level 1.

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