Small Wonders: Late Gothic Boxwood Micro-carvings from the Low Countries


Art can amaze and inspire, and that is particularly true of miniature art. Just like the awesome scale of a Gothic cathedral, the microscopically small also makes us wonder about its unimaginable size: how could something so tiny have been made by human hands? People have been captivated for centuries by the Gothic micro-carvings created in the Low Countries in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. These miniature altarpieces or prayer beads were initially admired for the religious visions that unfolded upon opening them, but there was soon equal fascination with their artistry and craftsmanship. These objects became fashionable and found their way into some of the most important collections of the period. Perhaps possession of the world in miniature reinforced the collectors’ sense of power and status in the real world?

Today, most of these boxwood miniatures are in museums the world over, three of which have joined forces to share this remarkable art with the public: the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, The Met Cloisters in New York, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The result is Small Wonders, an exhibition that will travel to each museum, as well as a website with high-quality photographs of these micro-carvings, and this book designed by Irma Boom.

Small Wonders offers many new insights into the making of these marvellous works of art and their use for both prayer and play. It also contributes to our knowledge of the maker Adam Dircksz, including his origins in Holland (not Flanders). Dircksz remains an enigma, after his initial discovery in 1968 by Jaap Leeuwenberg, former curator of sculpture in the Rijksmuseum. Leeuwenberg’s pioneering work and that of Susan Jean Romanelli, a former Met curator, whose 1992 dissertation was devoted to micro-carving, jointly blazed the trail for the outstanding research conducted by the authors of this book. We are deeply grateful for their contributions. Our thanks, too, go to all the staff members at the three museums who have been involved in this project and to the many museums and private individuals who made their precious works of art available to us. Finally, we are indebted to the sponsors who made Small Wonders into such a wonder: the family of the late Ken Thomson in Toronto, the Michel David-Weill Fund in New York, and the Pot Family Foundation/ Rijksmuseum Fonds in Amsterdam.

Taco Dibbits, General Director, Rijksmuseum

Thomas P. Campbell, Director & CEO, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Stephan Jost, Michael and Sonja Koerner Director & CEO, Art Gallery of Ontario



  1.  Cover and Foreword

  2.  The Boxwood Carvers of the Late Gothic Netherlands

  3.  Prayer nuts (paternosters), small size (diam. 25−40 mm) [CAT. NOS. 1−11]

  4.  Prayer nuts seen through the 'eyes of the Heart' [FIGS. 63−78]

  5.  Prayer nuts (paternosters), medium to larger size (diam. 40−70 mm) [CAT. NOS. 12−24]

  6.  Scale, Prayer and Play [FIGS. 79−104]

  7.  Larger prayer nuts (polyptychs) Multifaceted prayer nuts (paternosters) Rosaries [CAT. NOS. 25−37]

  8.  Patronage and early ownership of Sixteenth-Century micro-carvings from the northern Netherlands [FIGS. 105−33]

  9.  Devotional monstrances, tabernacles and miniature altars [CAT. NOS. 38−49]

  10. Handpicked: Collecting Boxwood carvings from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-first centuries [FIGS. 134−77]

  11. Initials, Knife handle, Peapods, Miniature coffins, Heads and Skulls [CAT. NOS. 50−63]

  12. Statuettes, 'Taillee en bois bien fecte' [FIGS. 178−221]

  13.  Statuettes [CAT. NOS. 64−78]

  14. Workshop Practices [FIGS. 222−64]

  15. Jannella’s Monumentino [CAT. NO. 79]

  16. Appendix

  17. Catalogue

  18. List of Illustrations, Bibliography, Index, Photography, Acknowledgements


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