Small Wonders – The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Prayer nut depicting The Crucifixion

They are among the most sophisticated, mysterious and unknown works of Dutch art: the masterfully carved figurines, miniature shrines, coffins, skulls and prayer nuts of boxwood from the 16th century. Often no larger than a few tens of millimetres, and intended purely for private use, only about 130 examples of these miniature marvels are still in existence today. The Rijksmuseum has succeeded in gathering 60 of them from around the world to display in their aptly titled Small Wonders exhibition.

These miniature carvings from the late Middle Ages have fascinated people for centuries. How could they produce such rich and detailed Biblical scenes on such an unimaginably small scale? In a bid to uncover the mystery a team of art historians and curators from the Rijksmuseum, Art Gallery of Ontario and The Metropolitan Museum of Art carried out extensive research. The latter two institutions focused on technical research into the production techniques whilst The Rijksmuseum undertook art historical research into the producers and buyers, as well as the use of particular artworks.

Prayer nut with The Nativity and The Adoration of the Magi, Adam Dircksz. and workshop, c. 1510 – c. 1525

One of the major findings was that the majority of micro-carvings are so technically and stylistically consistent that they must have come from one particular workshop, that of Adam Theodrici, ‘Adam Dircksz’, whose signature appears on one of the prayer nuts.

His craftsmanship is revealed in all its glory in the prayer-nut of the Crucifixion and Christ before Pilate, one of the highlights of the exhibition.  A remarkable detail is the miniscule bespectacled figure sitting in the front, almost as if the micro-carver is subtly inviting his audience to put on their specs and examine in detail his masterful miniature creation.

Paternoster bead made for King Henry VIII of England and his wife Catherine of Aragon, Adam Dircksz. and workshop, 1509-1526

Another significant discovery, based on identifying and tracing the whereabouts of some of the purchasers and early owners of these micro-carvings, was that his studio was not in the Southern Netherlands, as was long assumed, but must have been in the north, possibly in Delft. This discovery challenges the often prevailing view that the flourishing of the arts in the late Middle Ages occurred mainly in the southern provinces of the Low Countries.

Research has also shown that these miniature devotional items served not only a religious purpose, i.e. to support prayer and devotion, but also had a certain element of play and entertainment to them. Their complexity draws the user into a visual game in an attempt to unlock their hidden images. As this playful aspect requires greater concentration it also deepens the meditation.


Miniature altar Virgin of the Rosary with Saints Barbara and Catherine, Adam Dircksz. and workshop, c. 1500 – c. 1520

For those unable to visit the museum in person a lavishly illustrated book, edited by Rijksmuseum curator Frits Scholten, has been published by the Rijksmuseum and NAI010 to coincide with the exhibition.

Small Wonders, 17 June to 17 September 2017

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