For a long time, one of the best kept secrets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a display case in Gallery 306 on the museum’s first floor. Its contents were small and, from a distance at least, unspectacular—which probably explains why so few visitors stopped before it as they moved between the Medieval Hall and the American Wing. Those who did, however, were rewarded with the sight of some of the most remarkable objects in the entire encyclopedic collection: hinged wooden beads about one inch in diameter which opened to reveal, carved in the round inside each hemisphere, a Cecil B. DeMille Crucifixion scene or similar Biblical narrative. Imagine Michelangelo’s 45' x 40' Last Judgment fresco relocated to the inside of half a golf ball and you’ll have an idea of the head-spinning combination of epic conception and diminutive execution these works embody.

The title is typical of the astonishment often resorted to by writers trying to come to terms with these extraordinary creations.

The objects in question are rosary beads, made in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century and unlike anything in the history of Western or Gothic art. A group has now been brought together in “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures,” an exhibition at the Met Cloisters. The title is typical of the vocabulary of astonishment so often resorted to by writers trying to come to terms with these extraordinary creations. Others, we learn from the show’s catalogue, are “ingenious,” “enthralling,” “magical,” and “miraculous.” Yet, as the exhibition’s introductory wall text advises us, “[N]o adjective has ever been adequate to express the sense of wonder and amazement that the miniatures elicit.” The show itself makes clear just why that is.

Jointly organized by Alexandra Suda, the curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (ago) in Toronto; Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator for The Met Cloisters; and Frits Scholten, the senior curator of Sculpture at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, “Small Wonders” consists of nearly fifty objects drawn primarily from the collections of the Met and the Art Gallery of Ontario, the latter’s holdings the gift of Canadian publishing magnate Ken Thomson (1923–2006), who began collecting them in the 1950s.

The first discovery on entering the show is that this genre of sculpture was far more complex and ambitious than the objects in the Met’s display case would have suggested. Besides Biblical narratives, their subjects included episodes from the lives of saints such as Jerome or Augustine. Then there are the objects themselves. Besides beads, there are miniature altarpieces, tabernacles, and diptychs, all as figurally complex as the contemporaneous monumental retables to be found in churches in Germany and Austria. And the composition of the beads often involved more than simply two hemispheres. One telling the story of King David has two tiny hinged wings carved in relief covering one hemisphere and a single decorated disc covering the other so that, as the label text tells us, “Like curtains at the theater [they] can all be opened so that the drama of the biblical King David’s life unfolds act by act.”

One of the most remarkable objects is a rosary that once belonged to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, each of its small beads carved with the image of an apostle, a figure from Hebrew scripture, a Christian narrative, and an excerpt from the Apostle’s Creed. Talk about multum in parvo. Nor were the “beads” always round. Some here are carved in the shape of skulls with, inside one, carvings of the Entry into Jerusalem and Christ Carrying the Cross. Reinforcing the contemporary worldview that, as the label so vividly puts it, “life is short, death inevitable and punishment for sin certain,” there are even three miniature coffins, one containing a carved skeleton no more than two inches long.

Before most works of art one’s normal experience is to enter into their imaginative life. With these, one finds oneself instead pondering a host of questions: Who were they made for? What purpose did they serve? How have such exquisitely delicate objects, in which Roman centurions wield spears one quarter the thickness of a matchstick, survived the ravages of time? Above all, how were they made? And what preternatural degree of eye-hand coordination would have been required to produce them, there being so little margin for error when working at these tolerances?

They would be held in their owners’ hands, their scenes contemplated, their religious inscriptions read or idly fingered.

Some things we do know: These are works created for private devotion. They would be held in their owners’ hands, their scenes contemplated, the religious inscriptions on their carved exteriors read or idly fingered. Some were taken everywhere, carried on the owner’s belt in a protective case. And thanks to the research undertaken for this exhibition, we now know how they were made. Each hemisphere was not, as had long been thought, a single piece of wood painstakingly dug out by its maker. Instead each is a composite of multiple layers or slices of wood—anywhere from one to eight per bead—each carved individually, the whole bead then assembled and held together with wooden pegs inserted into drilled holes. The effect, in the curators’ apt analogy, is like so many flats creating deep space in a proscenium stage.

One of the exhibits is a disassembled bead, its four-layer Crucifixion scene and two-piece hemispherical housing arrayed in one of the cases like the contents of some just-opened do-it-yourself kit. That should break the spell, like the explanation of a magician’s trick. Instead it enhances it, as we come to understand what was involved in making each work: bas-relief, carving in the round and joinery, all on a miniature scale.

But there’s more: In some, microscopic details such as headdresses, finials, and candles were carved separately and inserted, like pegs, into holes. In one Last Judgment scene, a tiny figure is just visible inside the mouth of Hell that had been added separately. And then there is this description of a bead depicting Jesus clearing the Temple in Jerusalem of the money lenders and merchants:

What makes this prayer bead special is the tiny bird cage held by the woman fleeing right in front of Jesus. Behind the curved cage bars are several tiny doves carved in the full round. When the prayer bead is moved in the hand of its user, the doves shake within their cage creating an astonishing kinetic effect. How did the maker of this prayer bead accomplish the feat of carving the doves behind bars? In an otherwise simple scene, this little detail was almost certainly included to inspire wonder in the original viewers.

Despite what we know and have recently learned, the questions keep coming. In particular, one would like to know more about how these objects fit into the medieval worldview. We know the purpose they served, but what did they represent to those who made and used them? For people in the Middle Ages, the world was saturated in symbolism. Every aspect of the physical world had some larger theological meaning. The choice of boxwood here may have been practical—its dense, fine-grained makeup made it ideal for this kind of intricate carving—but it was also symbolic. Being an evergreen, boxwood was considered emblematic of eternal life; some medieval writers believed it was used for the Cross; it was thought to ward off the devil. Might there not be some similarly larger meaning to the objects themselves?

Could the mysteries of the beads’ creation be an analog for the mysteries of the Christian faith?

For example: the Bible contains instances of spiritual lessons being communicated through glaring disparities of scale—the parable of the mustard seed and the metaphor of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. These rosary beads do much the same thing. As the catalog states, “Sight and touch join forces to facilitate meditation on the drama of the Christian story, to cradle a virtual walk on Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa in the palm of the hand.” Might there be a connection between the two? Could the mysteries of the beads’ creation—just how did that artisan carve those doves behind bars?—be an analog to the mysteries of the Christian faith?

While the beads are utilitarian, they are so only in the narrowest sense—to facilitate their owners’ devotions. They are acts of faith, their makers going beyond the impossible for the glory of God and in the confident expectation of finding a better world beyond our own. It is an outlook one can only admire. And envy.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 58
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