If small is beautiful, the current exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario is absolutely gorgeous.
Boxwood carvings, mostly from the 1500s and 1600s, are experiencing their first international exhibition. The AGO owns some of them, ten prayer beads and two miniature altarpieces having been collected by Lord Thomson and donated to the AGO. Other examples from across Europe are now on display together in a stunning debut exhibit.
The most historically important item is a rosary belonging to King Henry VIII, and given to his first wife Queen Katherine of Aragon. But as with all the objects on view, the figures and other details are so small as to evade even the finest vision. Magnifying glasses don't help, nor do microscopes.
When the curators of the exhibit first tried X-ray analysis that failed too, as there is no contrast, since the entire sculpture is made of the same material. A new type of X-ray analysis, micro CT scanning, was developed which has finally revealed the secrets of the carvings.
In one of the prayer beads of the Henry VIII piece, for example, images of the King and Queen appear on a balcony that is hidden from view no matter what angle you look at it. These images have been secretly looking down on a palace scene for 500 years.
In another carving, researchers knew a very tiny bird cage had been carved, but the X-rays revealed something quite astonishing: birds inside the cage! I don't know the exact size of these bird carvings, but something on the order of a tenth of a millimetre is probably close. How it was all done with instruments centuries ago is still unknown.
A day-long conference in Toronto about these fine objects was attended by researchers from across Canada, the United States and Europe. Frits Scholten, Senior Curator of Sculpture at the Rijksmuseum, is one of the three curators of the exhibit. He said that in their day, these prayer beads were called apples.
“Some prayer beads are in the shape of dice of the period. It united the pleasing with the useful. It was not seen as idle or sinful but rather playful and devotional,” Scholten said. In looking at the scenes depicted, Scholten said “real time is compressed to the time of the micro carving leading to meditation and reflection.”
Scholten drew an analogy between the nearly invisible scenes of the carvings and a text from 1458 by Nicholas of Cusa who describes polishing a piece of beryl into a lens and then looking through it. “Thus he sees things previously invisible to him,” wrote Cusa. “When a rational beryl is applied to the spiritual eyes, we penetrate with its aid to the indivisible origin of all things.” To see what is truly in these micro carvings, one must look with spiritual eyes.
For those not so enlightened as to contemplate such heights of self-awareness, the AGO offered a virtual reality tour of one prayer bead. It is the first case of VR in the museum art world. The opportunity to see one of these tiny beads as a large object, maybe seven feet high, was astonishing. I was able to walk right into it and look at the micro carvings from all angles, even from behind the object itself.
Coinciding with the conference, the website for the carvings went live. It is the result of taking 26,000 photos in 21 collections around the world. Anywhere from 15 to 100 photos of each object was required to develop, by focus stacking, an image of the entire object in perfect focus. The database is massive, as some images are 350 Mb each. Even the US space agency NASA was enlisted to scan some of the data as 30 gigabytes are required for just one object.
While some of the images are benign, such as the Three Wise Men offering gifts, others are more troublesome. There is a brutal imagery in these tiny precious objects, including the Devil taking chained people to Hell. Perhaps it is just as well the images are so small.
The exhibit is on at AGO until Jan. 22, 2017. Combined with the Mystical Landscapes exhibit I also reviewed for Sun News, these are two extraordinary shows in one place, not to be missed!
photos with this article by C. Cunningham