Tuesday, March 14, 2017

SMALL WONDERS: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures at The Cloisters: Review by Polly Guerin

The Boxwood Rosary 
The execution of miniature prayer beads and diminutive altarpieces is as miraculous as the stories they tell, yet today we can behold them with sense of wonder and awe at The Met Cloisters in the recently opened exhibition SMALL WONDERS: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures. In the Glass Gallery, Gallery #10 through May 21, 2017. 
     Small in scale, yet teaming with life, miniature boxwood carvings have been a source of wonder since their creation in the Netherlands in the 16th century.  We are at once amazed and stunned by the miracles of the Bible that unfold on a tiny stage, and  the artists who created these treasures, surely for Kings and only the wealthy could afford to own. These intricately carved objects require intense scrutiny. Some measure a mere two inches (five centimeters) in diameter  and hold stories and legends in the intriguing depth and articulation of their creation. Image Left: Rosary of Floris van Egmond and Margaretha van Glymes, Netherlands 1500-1539. (c) Musee du Louvre, Department des Objects d'art, Paris. Photo: Craig Boyko/Ian Lefebvre.
      Take a peak at another boxwood rosary made for King Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, before his notorious efforts to dissolve the marriage and his break from the Catholic church. From the Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth, Trustees of Chatsworth Settlement complex bears the Royal Arms of England as well as the tiny letters "He8" and "Ka" abbrevations for King Henry the VIII and his first wife, who he married in 1509.
TRANSFORMING BOXWOOD:  The artists transformed boxwood into something utterly new, tiny, intricate carvings, the likes of which had never been seen or imagined before.  These creative geniuses took a material understood today merely as an ornamental plant and exploited its sculptural potential. In their hands entire worlds emerged from dense and fine-grained wood. The ingenious techniques of the artists who created these precious panoramas have defied comprehension for centuries.  Now, through the joint efforts of the conservators at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the carvers' secrets have at last been revealed. 
A closeup articulation of a Battle Scene
The exhibition, the first of its kind, features nearly 50 of these tiny treasures that offer us access not by travel but through the eyes of prayer and a sense of wonder. The original owners of these works of art had the luxury of cradling them in their own hands, and oh what tales are told!  There are men on horseback wielding spears, dogs and camels and chained monkeys, women fainting, saints enduring devils tormenting, and angels singing. All composed with the exceptional skill of the carver then, they demand close observation on your part now.

Prayer Bead Adoration of the Magi 
A video revealing the intricacies of the carver's merit accompanies the exhibition but no adjective has ever been adequate to express the sense of wonder and amazement that the miniatures elicit. In addition to the exquisite collection an installation with sculpture, tools, and eyeglasses deserves your attention. It celebrates the work of the Italian woodcarver Ottaviano Jannella renowned for his masterful and ingenious manipulation of boxwood. While later in date than the Netherlandish works featured here, the assemblage of carvings, tools and materials bears witness to the extraordinary technical accomplishment of sculptors who created intricate worlds from modest blocks of wood.

BIBLE IN MINIATURE: In a miniature altarpiece with the Adoration of the Magi, Netherlands, early 16th century, the entourage of the Wise Men pay homage of Jesus including camels and an elephant. The names of these magi are spelled out beneath: Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar Images of lions had long served as supports for altarpieces and reliquaries.  Here they give a sense of ferociousness or even vigilance, rather they appear well fed and sleep. Image Left: Prayer Bead with the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion Netherlandish, early 16th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan 1917. Photo: Peter Zeray.
     Patience is required to fully appreciate these incredible treasures. As the visitor gently lean over window cases they observe remarkable Biblical stories in boxwood carvings that tell intricate stories of saints and sinners. The exhibition is accompanied by a visitor's guide published by the Art Gallery of Ontario and a catalogue published by the Rijksmuseum. Both books are available in The Met Store. 
     Ta Ta Darlings!!!  It's a challenging exhibition, but one that will leave you stunned by its
diminutive beauty and in awe by the skilled workmanship of the carvers. Fan mail welcome at pollytalknyc@gmail.com. Visit Pollys Blogs at www.pollytalk.com.

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