Infinity, in the palm of your hand


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Small wonders at the Cloisters


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  • A prayer bead depicting the Legend of Saint James the Greater made in the Netherlands in the 16th century is just 2-1/4 × 1-7/8 inches in diameter. Photo: Adel Gorgy




  • A decade of rosary beads that was a prized possession of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Photo: Adel Gorgy




  • The large, final bead of Henry VIII's rosary opens to reveal miniature sacred realms. Photo: Adel Gorgy




  • The Letter P, which once belonged to Philip the Handsome, was serendipitously discovered by Boehm and her colleague Melanie Holcomb and acquired by The Met just in time to make it into the show. Photo: Adel Gorgy




  • A miniature altarpiece with the Adoration of the Magi from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, shows variety and the artist's creative spark. Photo: Adel Gorgy



BY MARY GREGORY

We all know, and many of us have traveled to see, monumental works of art like the Pyramids of Giza. But there are wonders no less spectacular at the opposite end of the spectrum. Through May 21, breathtaking examples of some of the world’s most exquisite miniature sculptures are on view in “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures” at the Cloisters.

In the early 1500s, Henry VIII wanted (among others) one of the highly prized carved rosaries that were coming out of workshops in the Netherlands. Having one meant not only that you were important, but that you were well connected and had excellent taste.

“It was the in thing,” said Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters, when I spoke with her about the exhibition. “They seem to have been very much appreciated within aristocratic and royal circles.” Of the 130 in existence, this exhibition brings 49 of the most remarkable to New York.

The boxwood rosary that belonged to the king and his wife, Katherine of Aragon, is a highlight. Eleven beads, ranging from about the size of a marble to the size of a small egg, are teeming with infinitesimally detailed scenes from the Bible. Boehm and her colleagues have identified the subjects, and she describes them engagingly in the wall texts and object labels. Four tiny medallions on each of the 10 smaller beads depict carved figures from the Old and New Testaments. Weaving through the scenes are even tinier Latin inscriptions, in this case, parts of the Apostle’s Creed.

The hinged main bead opens to reveal the figure of Mary surrounded by rays of light, with six winged angels, two of whom hold a crown above her head, all in a space smaller than your thumb. In the upper portion, the artist has carved a church with soaring Gothic arches, an altar flanked by priests, and a tiled floor with kneeling attendants. Foreground, background, figures peeking through the arches, carved designs on the priests’ robes, candlesticks holding minute candles — these and a sense of astonishment and wonder are contained in this marvel that typifies the quality and workmanship in these masterpieces.

The detail is mind-boggling; it would be wise to bring a magnifying glass. But Boehm offers expertise and aid. Her descriptive labels about the beads, miniature altars and other objects offer background on the work, information on the patron and techniques, and a story about what’s happening on these tiny stages.

A Crucifixion scene with a soldier holding a lance that’s literally thinner than a kitten’s whisker presents, along with delight and amazement, two questions. First — after fashioning a carving with three crosses, horses and figures all crowded into this tiny space, why did the artist make the effort to add a minute, fragile lance? It had to be incredibly difficult. It must have taken enormous concentration and time. There might have been many failed works before this perfect one. Did he add that detail just because he could? To celebrate and flaunt his virtuosity? Was it for the glory of God? Or was it to impress a patron and ensure the next commission? “I think ‘D,’” said Boehm, “all of the above.”

The second question (and this was murmured from one visitor to another at each sculptural miracle) is — how? The exhibition includes a box of woodcarver’s tools from the 1600s and videos that document recent discoveries about construction techniques. “When we have the video and CT scans and all the things that we did to understand finally how these things were made,” Boehm said, “to me, it doesn’t decrease our sense of wonder, it actually redoubles our sense of wonder.”

And then, there’s a larger question. To what end?

Three octogenarian ladies, bespectacled and primly dressed, gazed into the case next to me. One turned and, in a very proper British accent, said, “Mind blowing.” These tiny altars and prayer beads were meant as much as dazzling works of art as they were for private devotions to transport viewers to a different level of awareness.

“The meditative quality of them works in a couple of ways all at once,” Boehm said. “When you take one of these things in your hands, first of all, it has this lovely smooth and yet complicated surface. So that, immediately, you want to finger it, and that busies you. It preoccupies you. And then, when you open it, there is this little tiny world there that you’re holding in your own hand that allows you to kind of step into it visually. ... It is its own little world, and it’s a little world that you have the right to gaze in.”

I was particularly drawn to a bead that depicts St. Jerome. I’m a fan of the saint who first translated the Bible to Latin and spent his days in a library reading and writing, accompanied by his dog and a loyal lion from whose paw he extracted a nasty thorn. They’re all here, enclosed in a miniscule universe, the flip side of which pictures Jerome in the wilderness surrounded by a forest with branches as delicate as dill fronds.

Boehm pointed out an altarpiece with the Adoration of the Magi from the Art Gallery of Ontario, which, together with the Rijksmuseum, co-organized the traveling exhibition. “It has three little figures of lions holding up the base on their backs, and the amazing thing is that the lions aren’t even the same.” She described each as about the size of a lima bean. “The first lion looks like he’s asleep, and then the second one is turning around and, like a puppy, he’s teething on the wood base itself. Then the third one, he’s licking the platform on which he sits.” What Boehm hopes people will discover is, she said, “Those touches that the artist introduces just because he wants to, or just because he can. The variety that happens for no need, for no reason at all, except just to do it. To me, that’s the creative spark.”






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