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Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures at the AGO

Tiny carvings, big questions.

From November 5 until January 22, 2017, the AGO presents Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures. The exhibition displays more than 60 boxwood carvings—rosaries, prayer beads, altar pieces—from Northern Europe, dating back as far as the 1500s.

Twelve of these trinkets were already part of the AGO’s Thomson Collection of European Art. The carvings are unfathomably intricate, catching the attention of many visitors who all had one question: how were they made? “I want to be able to answer the questions posed by our visitors,” Sasha Suda, one of the curators for Small Wonders, noted in a public statement. “In this case, I couldn’t! The technique used to make these works or art was just too complex and hidden for me to explain it without more information.”

This led to Suda teaming up with AGO conservator of sculptural and decorative arts, Lisa Ellis, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum. To unravel the mysteries of a 500-year-old craft, the teams turned to the high-tech practices to today; it is micro-computer tomography scanning (essentially a 3-D x-ray), in particular, that Ellis attributes for uncovering two distinct, previously unknown crafting strategies.

The first, a simpler approach, where two solid halves are carved in shallow relief and hinged—seen within the prayer bead depicting Christ Carrying the Cross and The Crucifixion. The second, more complex process (as within a bead with scenes of The Last Judgement and The Coronation of the Virgin) also begins with a solid piece of boxwood for each inner hemisphere of the bead. From there, “windows” are removed to allow access into deeper portions from behind. It’s estimated that there are nearly 30 separately carved spikes set into the ceiling of The Last Judgement. The remainder of the scene is constructed from multiple pieces fitted back together, keeping the original wood grain intact—allowing it to withstand the test of time.

Small Wonders marks the North American debut for some of these pieces, such as the Chatsworth Rosary, which originally belonged to Henry VIII. All remaining mysteries will be addressed by Suda, Ellis, and their team of researchers and curators in a symposium held at the AGO’s Jackson Hall on October 30. After the AGO, the exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in February  before finishing at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in June .

Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, runs from November 4 to January 22, 2017 at the AGO, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5T 1G4, 416-979-6648.