Using micro-CT scanning, a cutting-edge X-ray technology, scientists are working to reveal the secrets of how miniature boxwood carvings were made in early 16th-century Europe. And what they discover astonishes them. Their new knowledge turns previous beliefs about these tiny and astonishingly intricate carvings upside down.
Only 135 of these almost miraculously complex religious carvings are known to exist. They were probably made during the first 30 years of the 16th century, either in Holland or neighboring Flanders. They all have Christian themes and come in various forms including altar pieces, tiny globes which open and rosaries. They were highly desirable – England’s King Henry VIII is said to have owned one.
Speaking to news network CNN in December 2016 curator Alexandra Suda, of the Art Gallery of Toronto, said, “They’re objects that defy modern comprehension. As small as they are, they represent the limitless potential for human creativity in a way that is universal.” But the researchers hoped to find out more about how these extraordinary objects were made, who made them and why they were no longer created after around 1530.
Using their advanced scanning method, the researchers were able to confirm a previous theory that the tiny carvings were made in layers which were subsequently attached to one another. Using miniscule pins, this was done in such a way as to entirely mask the joints between the thin slivers of carved boxwood.
Previously, experts had believed that these miniatures were probably made by craftsmen in several workshops. But the uniform way in which the 30 pieces that were studied were put together actually points to the likelihood of a single maker. And that would explain why no more were made after 1530. As Suda explained, “This is the product of one guy’s vision – probably with a few apprentices and assistants – who was extraordinarily gifted. When he died, this practice ceased to exist.”