The Science of Small Wonders

Scientific and art historical research, undertaken by the AGO with colleagues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, provides a new perspective on these works of art and their makers.
Lisa Ellis and Alexandra Suda

WATCH THE VIDEO Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures Introduction

 

Few things small enough to fit in the palm of the hand can inspire wonder about the limitless potential of human creativity. Gothic boxwood miniatures carved in the early 1500s do just that, prompting us to wonder how a person could have possibly made them by hand over five hundred years ago. We have answered that question using cutting-edge scientific imaging technology, and the 2016–2017 exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures allows you to discover the secrets of these tiny sculptures in person.

Prayer bead AGOID.29361.  Metal pins appear as straight and bent lines in the X-radiograph exposing the location of the five pins used to secure the two exterior shells, two wings and disc
Prayer bead AGOID.29361. Metal pins appear as straight and bent lines in the X-radiograph exposing the location of the five pins.

 

Scientific and art historical research, undertaken by the AGO’s Alexandra Suda, (Curator, European Art & R. Fraser Elliott Chair, Print & Drawing Council) and Lisa Ellis (Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts) together with their colleagues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, provides a new perspective on these works of art and their makers. This research is featured in the Small Wonders exhibition, on view at the AGO in fall 2016, The Met Cloisters in spring 2017, and at the Rijksmuseum in the summer of 2017.

The Curator

Sometimes I spend time in the galleries undercover, pretending to be a visitor so that I can see what interests them most. There are things I assume that the AGO’s guests come to see – Picasso, Rubens, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet – and often I’m right, but I had no idea what a hit gothic boxwood miniatures were. No one walks by the case that holds those objects without stopping to take a look. After a few moments, almost every person asks the same question: “How were these made?” Remarkably, this question often sparks a conversation between strangers. As a curator, I want to be able to answer the questions posed by the AGO audience, but in this case I couldn’t! The technique used to make these works of art was just too complex and hidden for me to explain it without more information myself. To learn more, I turned to Lisa Ellis, our Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

Prayer bead AGOID.29360 separated into all of its parts using micro CT scanning and Advanced 3D Analysis Software. The components have been artificially toned and reassembled to demonstrate their relative placement
Prayer bead AGOID.29360 separated into all of its parts using micro CT scanning and Advanced 3D Analysis Software.

 

The Conservator

When Sasha came to me, I thought “this is going to be an easy question to answer.” I was wrong. To answer the question, I embarked with Sasha on what ended up being a five year journey into the worlds of physics, archaeology, 3D imaging software, and gaming computers. Simple x-radiography let me down; we needed a more sophisticated method to understand how these things were made. I turned to micro CT scanning to create virtual 3D models of these works of art inside and out. Using the 3D models, I was able to take apart each object virtually so that I could see how its pieces fit together and therefore how it was made. Astonishing secrets were revealed, including in one case a hidden portrait of a king and a queen that no one had seen for over 500 years.

Prayer bead AGOID.29365. The rare construction of the Last Judgement relief relies on a single disc into which thin panels are set into apertures at the apex and back. A detailed carved element, illustrating various torments of hell is inserted into the disc from the bottom. A multitude of smaller carvings are set into drilled holes: the most remarkable of these is a tiny figure placed into the mouth of hell
Prayer bead AGOID.29365. The rare construction of the Last Judgement relief relies on a single disc.

 

Unlocking the Mystery

Together, we learned that it takes a strong team of experts from different disciplines and institutions to delve deep into any single body of work. We also learned that sometimes the most obvious solution is the most effective – for example, standardized photography provided an incredible amount of new information about the works of art. We also learned that these works of art are universally captivating regardless of people’s background. The fact that they were made by hand 500 years ago is inspiring and makes us wonder about our own capabilities as creative humans.

Detail of miniature altarpiece (triptych) AGOID.34208. Micro CT scanning and Advanced 3D Analysis Software show that the central carving is largely made from a single piece of boxwood: the only additions are an ox that slides into place behind the Virgin in a rectangular opening. A column, with a tiny lamp, has been added through a drilled hole in the bottom
Detail of miniature altarpiece (triptych) AGOID.34208. Micro CT scanning and Advanced 3D Analysis Software.

 

Now that we know how the gothic boxwood miniatures were made, we have even more questions about the people who made them. What motivated the artists to go to this extreme? Will we ever know who they are? Were their original owners aware of the incredible skill that the creation of these works of art demanded? We continue to be impressed by them and know that our audiences will be too. There was a time when we worried that unlocking the secrets of these objects would make them less magical, but if anything it makes them even more wonderful today.

 

WATCH THE VIDEO Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures Introduction

Preview image: Prayer bead, The Vision of St. Hubert, AGOID.29359. The grey disc, rendered using micro CT scanning and Advanced 3D Analysis Software, reveals the deeper hunting scene which was designed to be glimpsed through openings in the anterior carving of the Vision of St. Hubert. Photo: Craig Boyko/Ian Lefebvre, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2016

The online catalogue raisonné and digital photography made possible through the generous support of Thomson Works of Art