No one knows who made these 500-year-old carvings

Gothic Boxwood Miniatures

They’re a marvel of artistry, design, and technology, yet the artists’ identities remain a mystery. We know that sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century, Dutch wood carvers began to sculpt detailed biblical scenes from Boxwood trees.

Carved rosary beads from the 16th century


A carved miniature altarpiece from the 16th century

Originally coveted for their religious value and easily-transported depictions of scripture, the miniatures have remained objects of fascination for centuries. The material itself held special meaning for the faithful, as Boxwood was thought to be one of the woods used for the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Some believed it could even drive out the devil.

Rosary bead depicting the crucifixion


Although little is known about the artists and their creative processes, specialists believe the high degree of detail could only have been accomplished with magnification. The exterior shells of the beads are thought to have been made by a foot-operated lathe, after which decorative designs were drilled and refined with hand tools.

Tools belonging to a 17th century Italian artist that may resemble the tools used by the Boxwood artists

The pieces are so detailed it takes micro CT scans to see everything the artists constructed, including an itty bitty person inside the mouth of a hell-demon.

If you’re still asking yourself, “but how did they do that?”, you’re not alone. For hundreds of years, collectors vied for these mysterious carvings, passing them on from generation to generation. Church officials and European royalty, including Henry VIII, were particularly involved in their trade. And in the 19th century, Renaissance art markets in Paris sparked renewed interest in them.

A skull-shaped prayer bead

Today, the majority of Boxwood miniatures can be found in museums all over the world. Three of those have teamed up to create Small Wonders, a traveling exhibit currently housed at the Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until the end of January. Their website is amazing, featuring pictures and essays on the design and technological marvel of the Boxwood miniatures. I suggest you check it out here.


5 thoughts on “No one knows who made these 500-year-old carvings

  1. It’s stunning that craftsmanship like this goes unattributed. Someone toiled a lot of hours, countless days and nights, lit only by candles, to make these. Someone who is long lost to history was quite proud of their work and someone else was excited to own them. I enjoy thinking about mysteries like this.


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