Bead Buzz: The Mystery Behind the Wooden Beads

Things aren’t always as they seem, and no one knows that better than the group of curators and conservators working at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

For years, AGO has housed roughly ten percent of the world’s 135 surviving boxwood prayer beads, rosaries, and miniature altarpieces made in Northern Europe during the sixteenth century. The Gothic boxwood miniatures include rosaries, such as the one given to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon for their wedding, and singular prayer beads that open to reveal remarkably detailed scenes from the Bible. All of the miniatures are believed to have been made either by the same artist or in the same workshop over a thirty-year period. They have baffled Alexandra (Sasha) Suda, AGO’s Interim Curator of European Art, and Lisa Ellis, AGO’s Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, because they were so intricately carved that the details couldn’t easily be discerned using X-ray machines.

wooden beads

Netherlandish. Expulsion of the Money Changers; Entry into Jerusalem, 1520–1530.

It wasn’t until 2014, when new technology became available in the form of the micro-CT scan, that the team of curators and conservators was able to discover how these beads, many of which measure less than 2″ in diameter, were made. Two to three thousand X-rays were taken of each of the beads in the AGO collection and then assembled into a 3D model, which the team was able to manipulate in order to understand how the beads were made.

After this discovery, Suda and Ellis reached out to partner with Barbara Drake Boehm, Curator of Medieval Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Pete Dandridge, Conservator and Administrator, Department of Objects Conservation at The Met; and Frits Scholten, Senior Curator of Sculpture at the Rijksmuseum, to help conserve as many of these miniatures as possible. Fifteen collections from across Europe and the United States were photographed and are now available for comparison and study, which has never occurred before.

The public had a rare chance to see the beauty of these masterpieces in person during an exhibit that began at AGO in November 2016, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in spring 2017, and finished its tour in September 2017 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

wooden beads

Netherlandish. Last Judgement; Coronation of the Virgin, 1500–1530.

Learn more about the boxwood prayer beads and view the collection on the AGO website and in the book Gothic Boxwood Miniatures: A Beginner’s Guide, also available from AGO.

This story originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Beadwork magazine. Featured Image: Netherlandish. The Temptation; The Crucifixion, First half of the 16th century. All photos by Craig Boyko/Ian Lefebvre, copyright Art Gallery of Ontario, 2016. The Thompson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.


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