MADDIE GILMORE | DATE 2/22/2017
Small Wonders came right on time (even if it is going to sell out immediately). Published on the occasion of an exhibition that opened today at the Met Cloisters, which will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, this book and the tiny treasures it holds offer up the perfect dose of amazement and escape during a time in which our daily tasks can seem unbearably large. Small Wonders is all about prayer nuts: miniscule boxwood carvings from the late-Gothic period that depict religious scenes and texts. Though the heyday for prayer nuts was nearly 500 years ago, dozens remain in the watchful possession of museums, many of which are included in this remarkable volume.
While small, prayer nuts are extremely intricate. Crafted in the studios of sculptural virtuosos whose other work at the beginning of the Renaissance included the ornate altar pieces that graced sanctuaries of the low countries around the Netherlands, each nut most likely passed between many expert hands before being sold at high cost to patrons. Smooth and pliable boxwood proved the perfect material for micro-carvings, which were never painted over. Extraordinarily detailed, delicate and often complex, each prayer nut represented huge amounts of patience and control on the part of their sculptors, as well as the pure artistic ingenuity evinced by the near constant variation in composition.
The term "prayer nut" is something of a misnomer, according to Small Wonders. For one thing, these carvings are not made of nuts; in addition, they may not have been used explicitly for prayer, either. Experts know that some original collectors of prayer nuts wore them as charms to indicate a high level of spirituality—a type of status denominator at the time. Some prayer nuts include small attachments at the top where they were hung from rosary beads. Prayer upon rosary beads, a complicated and multi-sensory devotional process, could have culminated in a viewing of the prayer nut, but such a religious practice was mostly confined to the private sphere.
The greatest joy and the most spiritual aspect of these tiny art objects, it seems, is simply in looking. Upon opening a prayer nut, one is confronted with a biblical scene that is packed with figures in action. The narrative, lost to context, can only be understood via the close study of each and every figure, until the viewer becomes privy to another world entirely. Concentrating on small or miniature objects can bring on the psychological effect of time compression. On the compact pages of Small Wonders, one can get lost for hours.
Designed by Dutch powerhouse Irma Boom so as to resemble a small wooden object itself, Small Wonders is a significant testament to these ingenious 16th century masterpieces, which remain as captivating as ever today. Divided by illuminating essays and sorted by size and shape—including statuettes, pea pods and miniature coffins—this book is a marvel. Open it up and, as with a prayer nut, enter into an altered state of imagination.
Hbk, 5 x 7 in. / 690 pgs / 774 color.