New Yorkers in general, and the Catholic ones in particular, are exceedingly fortunate to have at our ready access the many religious treasures of the Cloisters―the Metropolitan Museum's Medieval Collection.
It's the best Catholic museum this side of the Vatican.
Amongst its many galleries are the extant fragments of a time out of time when the Word of God pervaded every aspect of life and identity as Catholic was de rigueur, as was loyalty to the Church which gave meaning to that identity.
It was a time that G.K. Chesterton called “the height of human civilization.”
The Met Cloisters' Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures Exhibition is a treasury-in-miniature of intricately-carved wooden religious articles, any one of which would need an entire volume to describe fully.
The exhibition is sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) and the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam). The Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures opened Feb. 22, 2017.
One can become lost in admiring these wooden wonders―which is certainly in keeping with the original artists' intentions. These art pieces weren't meant merely as baubles or novel curiosities. Rather they were used daily to contemplate the lives of Christ and His followers and bring their owners to a more perfect spiritual state.
These tiny artworks are not only artistically attractive but are also mesmerizingly intricate, even by modern technological standards.
These highly detailed, miniature boxwood carvings have fascinated Christians since they were first created in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Some of these intricately carved objects, which can measure no more than two inches (five centimeters) in diameter, depict the miracles and other events of the Bible in magnificent detail.
Many of the works can be opened and closed when not being used for spiritual contemplation. Even the hinges and clasps of these nearly fifty, artful, three-dimensional sacramentals are masterfully crafted.
The execution of these prayer beads and diminutive altarpieces seems almost as miraculous as the stories they depict. In this first exhibition of its kind, the craftsmanship of the carvers who created these precious dioramas is available for all to see and admire and, indeed, inspire.
The exhibition is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund.
These creative and pious geniuses took boxwood ― a dense and fine-grained wood that is an otherwise purely ornamental plant — and created masterpieces.
Over the past five hundred years, the artwork of these boxwood carvings has repeatedly been described as “ingenious,” “artful,” “exquisite” and “subtle”. Even so, no adjective has ever been adequate to express the sense of wonder and amazement that the miniatures elicit.
Until recently, scholars had not been able to explain the secrets of the carvers who fashioned these objects. However, through the collaboration of conservators in Toronto and New York, the genius of the artists is now fully understood and shared with the public.
The carvers of these boxwood miniatures regularly introduced interesting variations on standard subjects. On one piece, the three Magi bring offerings to the baby Jesus. One is running late. His African servant is still handing him a bag of gold coins as the first king already kneels before the Infant, who is sitting on His mother's lap. Other servants attend a camel and horse. One at the right, whose back is turned towards us, prepares to tether a horse to a spike in the wall. In the Crucifixion beneath it, a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of hammers looks mournfully upon the scene.
The tiny treasures in this exhibition offer access to a sacred realm reached not by travel, but through the eyes of faith and a loving and adoring heart. The original owners of these works of art could cradle them in their own prayerful hands. Several of the beads are inscribed with the words, "Let us raise our heart by hand to God of the heavens."
Tiny Latin inscriptions quote the Bible on some of the pieces. Some have hymns associated with certain feast days. One includes the Good Friday prayer which hails the "sweet wood" of the Cross.
The words reinforce the meaning of the imagery, and yet their presence doesn't distract from the visual storytelling. The words and the depicted scenes soothe the soul and the mind.
In tiny dioramas, the Dutch carvers depicted spear-wielding men on horseback, hunting dogs, camels and monkeys alongside of fainting women, stalwart martyr saints enduring, tormenting devils and singing angels. These incredible images required exceptional skill of the carver then.
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 lecherous and treacherous efforts to dissolve the marriage and break from the Catholic Church. Equally remarkable is a diminutive sculpture, in the shape of the letter P, that opens to reveal scenes of the legend of St. Philip.
Used for prayerful meditation and contemplation, these ingenious carvings offer access to an inner, sacred realm.
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 are presented in the exhibition through video documentation and the display of a disassembled prayer bead.
Beloved in gardens around the world, boxwood is a slow-growing evergreen, native to the Mediterranean region. In the Middle Ages, it was linked by biblical authority to 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 are also 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 possessions.
There are several fascinating, fruitwood prayer beads carved in the form of a human skull. One depicts the Temptation and the Crucifixion. The other carries the image of Christ's Entry into Jerusalem and the Carrying of the Cross
One particular prayer bead poignantly depicts Christ's Via Dolorosa via way to Golgotha on its upper half. It also depicts St. Veronica's humble offering of a cloth to wipe His face. The Blessed Virgin Mary quietly mourns His death in the companion scene beneath it. Behind her, stands a man holding the Crown of Thorns which would be placed upon Christ's brow.
Another prayer bead depicts the Expulsion of the Money Changers from the Temple and Christ's Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.
Another prayer bead depicts Abraham's sacrifice of his son and the healing power of the Crucifixion. Moses sets up a bronze serpent upon a pole so that all who look upon it would be cured of the poisonous snake bites with which they were afflicted. In the roundel below is Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday. On the left wing, Samson carries away the doors of the city of Gaza, a remarkable display of power clearly being likened to Jesus bursting out of his tomb. At right, Jonah emerges from the belly of a whale after three days, a miracle that resonates with the Resurrection.
In this miniature altarpiece, the entourage of the Wise Men who pay homage to Jesus includes both camels and an elephant. The Magi's names are spelled out beneath them: Casper, Melchior and Balthasar.
This exhibition is replete with treasures beyond both value and description. But their value is more than what an art appraisers might claim. Rather, their worth is the degree of spiritual devotion to the Lord of All which these pieces inspire upon the Christian.
The exhibition is open to the public from February 22 to May 21, 2017.
Before coming to The Met Cloisters, this exhibition was presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (November 5, 2016–January 22, 2017); and afterward it will be on view at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (June 17–September 17, 2017).
Follow this link for general information about the exhibition: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2017/small-wonders.